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Southern Light

This week, Don reviews “Southern Light, Oxford, Mississippi” by Eileen Saint Lauren.

Eileen Saint Lauren’s second novel, “Southern Light,” is genuinely odd. It is not for everyone. In fact, I am not sure it is for me. But I will tell you about it anyway.

The action occurs in Oxford, Mississippi, in 1960 BUT ALSO in 1900 and in New England in 1888. In Oxford, a very old lady, Eleanor Franklin, invites a niece and her husband to come to her place, Fable Court, for a party. It is Christmas Eve and her birthday. She has promised Mary and Joe, then living in Meridian, that they shall inherit the place and all the land if they agree to come and live there. Eleanor adds, she will invite her friend and neighbor William Faulkner over also, for refreshments and biscuits. This means scotch whiskey for Mr. Faulkner. AND, husband Joe thinks he wants to be a writer. They will come.

The plot moves swiftly and weirdly. Eleanor has a factotum, Mordecai Malachi, who is German, a Holocaust survivor, we are told. He does everything for her, and has for years, including looking after her mentally challenged, one-eyed son, Layne, now a grown man and living behind a wall in the back of the house. Also in the house is a cat named Julius Caesar who wears a navy blue suede jacket with fur collar and the initials J. C. on the sides, and a wrist watch around his neck. A neck watch, I guess. The cat “knows” things. Mordecai is working on a strange mosaic wall, partly made of glass tiles, and writes quotes from Shakespeare in a “memory book.” It is hard to know why.

At the Christmas Eve party, much of the grotesque family history is revealed, so much in fact that even the thoroughly drunk Faulkner is appalled. There is sexual violence, cruelty, revenge, murder, family secrets, mental illness, drunkenness. It’s Gothic to a fault. Saint Lauren attaches to this scramble of a novel a set of instructions—not questions to be used in a book group, but notes for a professor on how to teach “Southern Light” as a gothic novel: lecture notes, handouts, literary definitions, possible term paper topics.

This novel is peculiar, unique in punctuation, and spells Hemingway with two “m’s.” It is impossible to say if you will like it.

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.