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Arts & Life

“Like Light, Like Music” By: Lana K.W. Austin

“Like Light, Like Music”
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“Like Light, Like Music”

Author: Lana K. W. Austin

Publisher: West Virginia University Press

Pages: 289

Price: $21.99 (Paperback)

“Exile’s Return to a Place of Violence and Prejudice But Also Unlikely Wonders”

Lana Austin teaches writing at UAH. “Like Light, Like Music” is her first novel and it is impressive and unusual.

The action all takes place in October, 1999, in Kentucky, mostly in the fictional town of Red River, population 5,000, and partly on Black Mountain. Our protagonist, Emmeretta Finnegan McLean, called Emme, 28 years old, has been working in Washington, D. C., as a reporter/photojournalist.

She loves her family and her home place, but had felt compelled to leave Red River, to leave Kentucky, because she cannot stand the narrowness, the prejudice, both racial and sexist, and she has some problems of her own to sort out.

Then there is a sensational and peculiar “occurrence,” as it is called in the novel, and she returns mainly to help her cousin Kelly who has been arrested.

Strange things have happened.

For years, Kelly has been beaten and raped by her husband, Cyrus. Everyone knew about it, including the sheriff, but he refused to act.

In Kentucky, the sheriff argued, it would be impossible to indict a husband for raping his wife.

But husband Cy’s death was odd to say the least. He had beaten Kelly nearly to death, smashed her face and broken her upper arm. Then Cy was himself picked up and smashed against a high wall, nearly 20 feet above the floor. No mortal could have done it, least of all a small woman with a broken arm.

And, that very night, 27 women in Red River went mad and sick—screaming, vomiting, shaking, running high fevers, many hospitalized, and claiming the town had been invaded by banshees, the brunaigh or broonies, angry female ghosts, perhaps witches. Mass hysteria? Mass poisoning? No.

To Emme this is less unbelievable than to us. Emme herself and her aunts and great aunts and many of her kin have what they call the “mountain gift”—Emme “had seen things when she heard music, and heard music when she’d seen things.”

It’s more than synesthesia; these women and some few men, all Scots or Scots-Irish, also receive visions of the past, sometimes of the future, and can sense powerfully when something important is happening to a kinsman.

(I have read that there are villages in Northern Mexico where the people can all see one another’s aura. When they meet on the street there is no reason to ask “how are you?” They already know.)

Emme concludes that the broonies are furious at the misogyny and the race prejudice in Red River and will invade again if necessary.

In the course of things, we learn of Emme’s youth, her childhood friend Evan, an African-American mathematical genius Emma cared for but could never have a relationship with for fear she would put him in mortal danger, and we meet Evan’s savant daughter, Mattie. Emme reconnects with Aiden, a boy she knew in childhood briefly but to whom she is mystically connected.

This novel comes praised by both Lee Smith and Robert Morgan, two novelists devoted to Appalachian life and folkways, and it is no wonder. We see the creeks and hollers. The folk eat the traditional food and even have some magic moonshine. We hear the speech, which still has some eighteenth-century Celtic in it after centuries, and listen as the women all sing, beautifully and often, Child Ballads and especially the Scots ballads of broken hearts, and female death and drowning.

Unusually for a first novel, the story is told almost entirely in dialogue, as Emme talks with one character after another, examining the past and planning her next move.

A fault one might find here is that Emme discusses the same subjects with ten different people and that gets repetitious. Less would have been better.

“Like Light, Like Music” is full of wonders, unlikely wonders, but we should surrender to it. The reader’s skepticism might be answered as Hamlet answers his skeptical buddy Horatio after Hamlet has spoken with his father’s ghost.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” 

Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.