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Book review: <i>South Of Everything</i> by Audrey Taylor Gonzalez

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the cover of the book

Germanville in the 1940s is rife with segregation and inequality. For Missy Sara, daughter of wealthy plantation owners, this inequality is incomprehensible, and her coming of age story is her struggle to understand the world around her through her own kind of magic.

The story

Missy Sara, known as Missy, has a privileged life. She and her brother Robertelee live on their Grandfather's property, surrounded by cattle, horses, cotton, acres of property to explore, and of course, black servants, who cook for them, coddle them, and look after them more so than their own family do. Missy understands the hierarchy of the house – Mammyrosy cooks and cleans and looks after her and Robertelee, Old Thomas keeps an eye on everything around the property and takes special care of Missy's grandfather, Reddaddy. Reddaddy and Old Thomas are great friends, but one was born with everything and the other nothing, And Missy can't understand how that works. But Old Thomas has a special place in his heart for Missy, and introduces her to the special magic and mysticism of the South, which wraps up Jesus and nature and superstition all in one.

Missy runs unchecked around the property, and learns from the people she encounters – crazy B-Budd, son of Mr Hugh who keeps the cattle – is a friend whose evangelism is incomprehensible to her, and his story is one that fascinates Missy. Old Thomas keeps the magic alive in Missy, and imparts to her wisdom which she instinctively understands despite her limited understanding of a world that's designed to keep the rich rich and the poor poor. As Missy gets older, she begins to question certain aspects of the life she's living, and discovers unsettling aspects of society like the Klu Klux Klan, and the tragic world of show horses. Missy's coming of age story is fraught with death, inequality, and conversely, love and magic.

The style

The South Of Everything was an interesting read. When I first began reading it I was unsure. The style is very southern from the word go – not over-the-top by any means, more incredibly authentic feeling, but this isn't something I'm used to so I was a bit wrong-footed. The story is written in the first person from Missy Sara's perspective, and the magic realism certainly doesn't pussy-foot around and starts straight away, and that also shook me up a bit. It was interesting because in the beginning Missy is a young girl, so the magic realism could pass as imagination, but combined with that was the plethora of southern names and relationships to keep a track of. I like that Gonzalez certainly wasn't dumbing the story down for the reader... I've had this particular name/relationship confusion with Rushdie, so she's in good company there. My confusion continued until probably just under half way, when I started to relax into the swing of things and suddenly everything clicked. I'm not sure if this was due to my initial unfamiliarity wearing off or something in the writing style falling into place, or a combination of the two.

Furthermore, I found the writing in the beginning – when Missy is quite young – to have a distant, once-upon-a-time quality. Obviously the story is written in memoir style, but I felt as though the author was looking back to a distant past which didn't make me feel close to the characters. Hence my sympathy took a little while to kick in. During this time period, Missy didn't understand much about what was going on around her – which is certainly realistic for a little kid – but it confused me about what was actually happening.

HOWEVER. I persisted, and it was worth it. Once Missy got a bit older, the style of narrative became a bit more immediate, Missy started to develop a comprehension about her surroundings she could portray to the reader, and the beautiful writing style really took shape. Suddenly I was seeing everything, smelling everything – I was there. As I said, it could have been the fact that I finally found the surroundings familiar because I'd read myself into familiarity, or it could just be that Gonzalez really found her stride towards the middle. But I'm so glad I persevered, because by the end I was hooked. And every now and again Gonzalez pulled out the perfect sentence that transported me to exactly where I should have been, like magic. Most authors can't manage one perfect sentence per novel, and Gonzalez had at least three. Also, I found the religious aspect of the story fascinating. I'm not religious, but the way religion was realised in the story was different to the many religious educations I've had about Christianity. Totally worth it as a reading and learning experience, I feel richer for having read this book.

Who is this book for?

Maybe people who are at least acquainted with the South would find it easier from the outset, but I recommend this story for anyone who likes memoirs. It's a beauty.

If you like this book, you would also like...

I was recommended this book on the strength of like Rebecca Wells, but I wouldn't necessarily compare the two, although she's certainly a winner on the Southern literature aspect, and potentially more accessible to novice readers.


In short

Title: South Of Everything
Author: Audrey Taylor Gonzalez
Publisher: She Writes Press
ISBN: 978-1631529498
Year published: 2015
Pages: 228
Genre(s): Contemporary literature
Review Type: