In the sullen heat of backwoods North Carolina, an old general store has been converted into a church. But the windows are covered in newspaper, and what goes on during worship is hidden from view. The pastor is Carson Chambliss, a saturnine and secretive man who can whip up the believers into a frenzy so they’ll handle live snakes with impunity. When something goes badly wrong, and an elderly woman dies, the congregation closes ranks. All except for Adelaide Lyle. Although frail and elderly, she confronts Chambliss and insists that she be allowed to take the children out of the church for their own safety.
Julie Hall and her farmer husband, Ben, have two boys. The younger, Jess, is a normal boy growing up in the hard scrabble tobacco farming countryside. But his brother is different. Christopher has never spoken a word to anyone in his life, and is considered ‘troubled’. Despite Ben’s misgivings , Julie is convinced that Pastor Chambliss and his church elders can cure the deeply autistic Christopher and she insists on taking him to the church. Sheriff Clem Barefield is the local law. He is well-meaning and humane but scarred by personal tragedy and guilt. He observes the activities of Chambliss with suspicion, but feels powerless to intervene. After a second service of healing, an awful accident has terrible consequences and the community is blown apart by a toxic mix of lust, deceit, hatred and rage.
The story is told in turn by the voices of Adelaide, Jess and Clem. The handling of the three different narratives is little short of masterly, as we share a virtually seamless 360-degree emotional view of events. When we look through the eyes of Jess we have the innocence and gullibility of youth. He sees the world with the chilling quality of plain sight untempered by understanding. Adelaide sees the world through spectacles dimmed by experience, but enhanced by faith and honesty. Meanwhile Clem has a more anguished view, because his own frailties and mistakes give him pause for thought, despite his inherent decency and sense of justice.
It is a brave author who chooses a resonant phrase from a great writer of the past as the title for their own novel. Thomas Wolfe wrote “(Death is) to lose the life you have, for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth.” It would be mortifying to borrow such great language and then write a complete turkey. There is no danger of that here. The writing is lyrical and heartbreaking. A great poet said,”The poetry is in the pity”, and I was deeply moved by the blend of courage, compassion and honesty laid out within these pages.
My only caveat about this book – hence the four stars rather than five – is that although it is nearly flawless as literature, I suspect some readers may not see it as a crime novel. The crime is ambiguous, at least in the early part of the story. There is no deduction, detection or pursuit. Yes, there is a struggle between good and evil but I would have to say this would be better described as a classical tragedy. Decent but flawed people are brought down by a combination of fate and their own imperfections; as an audience we can only watch events unfold, and we are sadder but wiser at the end. I don’t know if the Deep South of William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe exists anymore, but if it does, Wiley Cash must be its authentic voice.
A Land More Kind Than Home is already out as a hardback and for Kindle – the paperback release date is 28 March.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars