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The Stone Flower Garden

by Deborah Smith (Little, Brown and Company, 2002)

There’s little doubt that Deborah Smith is a first-rate storyteller.

But what I uncovered in the The Stone Flower Garden strains a bit too hard to be Southern Gothic — a mode that’s become more ubiquitous than kudzu.

Certainly this book is nowhere near as dark as Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or Daniel Woodrell’s The Death of Sweet Mister, or anything that Tennessee Williams ever wrote to elevate the genre. Not even close — and without close, not half as interestingly psychological.

Smith’s latest novel brings her legions of readers the story of Darl Union, heiress to the Hardigree Marble Company in the small town of Burnt Stand, N.C. The story covers 25 years of lives wrapped in deceit and murder and unrequited love — all of which young Darl finds herself the unlucky recipient of, at least in the first half of the novel.

The prologue expertly sets the stage when Darl tells us, “On a dark autumn night twenty-five years after I helped bury my great-aunt Clara Hardigree, I found myself digging her up.” The sentence does what first sentences are supposed do — hook the reader in. By the end of the prologue, Darl confesses to the object of her long-time affection, Eli Wade, that she is responsible for his father’s killing. It would be near impossible not to read on.

Darl’s grandmother, Swan Hardigree, and Great Aunt Clara both have blemished pasts, as does Swan’s maid, Matilda. In fact, only Darl and Eli have escaped unscathed the painful family secrets that intertwine at one juncture or another. Much is hinted at from the beginning, but the reader only learns the depths and darkness of these secrets when Clara arrives boisterously on the scene. By this time, Darl and Eli — the bespectacled son of a stonecutter, Jasper Wade, who has hired on with the Hardigree Marble Company — have already developed a case of young love. What Clara brings with her is the key to closets rotten with family skeletons, one of which even houses Jasper Wade’s daddy. Oh them bones — they do rattle, and rattle loud when Clara clarions them.

I won’t give away any of these secrets — suffice it to say that much of it seems too manufactured to resonate as realistic. Darl and Eli are compelling characters, though, and certainly the dignified Swan — based on the author’s own grandmother — is as tough a matriarch as she has to be to maintain a firm hand over her town, her business and her family.

The latter half of the book reads more like a Danielle Steele novel than a Southern Gothic epic. But it’s here where the grown-up passions of Darl and Eli ignite; though again, the literary device the author employees to bring them together strains the believability factor. Eventually, of course, the story ends back up at the beginning, and we learn the last dirty little secret Darl has been hiding through the years.

Overall, there’s enough dying and passion and secret-keeping acted out among this cast of stalwart characters to delight Smith fans and keep the average reader dialed in. And in case you’re wondering, as I was, whether or not there are actually marble mines in North Carolina, there are. One, in fact, The Casperis Marble Company, is now mining a quarry at Regal, a few miles east of Murphy — what the company calls the “Regal Blue.” It is said to be unexceled in the United States.

[Deborah Smith lives with her husband in Georgia and is at work on her next novel. She will be appearing at Malaprop’s Bookstore on Saturday, March 9 at 7 p.m. as part of a 17-city book tour. For more info, call 254-6734.]


****************************************************************** Isabel Zuber (Picador, 2002)

Styled in the old-fashioned tradition of Thomas Hardy or Emily Bronte, Salt is a satisfying first novel by poet Isabel Zuber. This epic story is principally about the marriage of Anna Stockton and John Bayley in the Western North Carolina mountains near the turn of the 20th century. The title is a metaphor for preserving and trust and other matters of survival: Salt was an important and necessary ingredient to mountaineers. The tale spans 110 years, from 1877 to 1987, and follows not only Anna’s and John’s lives, but those of their children.

Anna is a romantic dreamer, a woman dedicated to work and books and thoughts of love. John, a hard hill farmer (and we all know the nature of hard hill farmers) is already twice married and twice widowed by the time he meets Anna, and he’s shouldering the sorrow of two dead wives and the responsibility of child-rearing. It’s not an easy time for either of them, though Anna seems the more capable of adapting, perhaps because of her dreamer nature.

Their stories are told in alternating fashion so that we learn their histories together as they grow into adulthood. Along the way, they survive harsh stepfathers, the untimely deaths of friends — and, in John’s case, his unbridled passion for his first wife. But when she grows ill and begins to fade like a rose come winter, he hires a girl to assist with housework and ends up sleeping with her, ultimately taking her for his next wife.

Anna is far more innocent of such doings, learning how to kiss from her sister: “And Nell kissed her. On the mouth. Anna had been kissed behind the schoolhouse and again on a walk home from church when she and a classmate reached a place where the road curved and everyone else had gone on ahead out of sight. But it had been nothing like what Nell talked about. This was only a sisterly kiss and sure to be innocent on Nell’s part, but Anna was stunned by the way it made her feel.” Here we get the first hint of Anna’s imagination, of her sense of wonderment about all things mysterious. The poet’s deft touch is present throughout the work. By the time John Bayley comes on the scene, Anna has already come close to another love with the wealthy, bright and handsome David Alba, son of the couple Anna has gone to work for.

But widower John woos her hand away. In spite of his sometimes pragmatic view of a spouse — “[She is] easily the best field hand I’ve ever had, he thought” — John does feel deep desire for her, and their love is lusty, at least in the beginning.

The first hint of real trouble comes when John finds Anna dancing in the kitchen with his oldest boy, Roby, and grows so angry that “He … never touched her again since that night.”

As for Anna, she rues John’s behavior in silence: “I have spaces of my own. I hold and hoard them against you as I must. Enter at your own peril. You won’t like what you find.”

Few novels I’ve read recently achieve true “storyteller status,” but this one does. Salt is recommend for anyone who likes to take a good book to a private little corner and enjoy its company.

[Isabel Zuber lives in Winston-Salem and is the author of two collections of poetry, Oriflamb and Winter’s Exile. She will be reading and signing her book at Malaprop’s on Friday, March 22 at 7 p.m.]

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