The opening paragraph of Kevin Powers’ new novel, A Shout in the Ruins, is perhaps the finest beginning to a book I’ve read since Flannery O’Conner blew open the universe in the first paragraph of The Violent Bear It Away. Like that gem, Powers’ opener is all mood and tantalizing hooks that spark a thousand questions in the reader’s mind. It’s 1870 and Emily Reid Levallois is officially dead, except that she keeps popping up in places far from the ruined Virginia plantation where her life expired—in Baltimore, the Great Dismal, and along the sands of the Florida Gulf Coast, a place where “every day the same mismatched rows of least and royal terns looks out toward a coming storm as small waves roll in and crash against the shore like the inevitable collapse of a trillion minor hills.” (3)
Powers can sometimes overreach with his prose. But through most of this novel, he’s using it to full effect and putting it to the service of telling a story of race, violence, and memory. These are themes that he pulled on in his first novel, The Yellow Birds, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award. That book, too, traced the effects of a devastating war, in this case the Iraq War in which Powers fought, while also tracking forbidden romance and stunted lives.
Here Powers’ canvas stretches from antebellum Chesterfield County, Virginia through Richmond, Virginia and Lumberton, North Carolina in the mid-twentieth century. The characters are well-drawn, even though the book comes in under 300 pages. Emily is the daughter of a Virginia grower who becomes the victim of a villainous neighbor, Levallois, who seizes the property of Emily’s father, while he is off at war, and then seizes Emily herself. At the same time, a slave couple, Rawls and Nurse, are separated and then reunited, though again not without the malicious intervention of Levallois.
Intercut with this nineteenth century story, is the tale of George, a 90-something African-American man in Richmond’s Jackson Ward in 1956, who heads off to find a piece of his history in coastal Carolina. Over the course of the book, we find that his story is intertwined with that of the characters from a century before.
Other characters make vivid appearances, such as a squad of ex-Confederate renegades, a battle-hardened Union solider sent to bring order to post-war Chesterfield, and Lottie Bride, who shepherds George in his last journey and then finds love and a home on the Chesapeake Bay.
The characters in A Shout in the Ruins all live under the weight of systems and histories that constrict their lives. Rawls, even after being released from slavery, resigns himself to this reality by reciting each day, “Today will be a hard day, and tomorrow even harder.” (148) George, the old man, watches the movie Shane with Lottie and identifies with Jack Palance’s character because “those dark, pinprick eyes told the truth at the heart of every story, that violence is an original form of intimacy, and always has been, and will remain so forever.” (120)
And yet there is a persistence to these characters that hints at something like redemption. Even the doomed Confederate deserters deliver an abandoned black child to a new home before heading off to face certain death. “‘One good thing still counts,’” the woman says in response to their act. “‘Now go.’ And so they did, their toes already into the water of what awaits us all.” (87)
Love also endures, surprisingly. At the end of the book, a woman says to herself, as George listens in, “You think you’ll never love another thing in this world. And somehow it is there again. It comes from nothing and from nowhere. It comes from less than nothing. How does it happen? It is the only miracle.” (256)
This is a shout in the ruins. It’s an affirmation carried in the beauty of Powers’ language. It’s a statement of faith in something beyond fate.