Cynthia Reeves’ debut novel, Badlands (Miami University Press, 2007) isn’t a happy story by any stretch. It deals with slow death, a marriage unraveling and the ravages of morphine in the human brain. No fluffy beach read, this.
But the author, a graduate of Warren Wilson College’s MFA program, infuses her first book with lyricism, starkly beautiful imagery and and interweaving of alternate tales — those pulled from a dying woman’s memory, those of what could have been, and those that actually were.
Badlands tells of Caro, a woman in the final stages of breast cancer, who convalesces at home cared for by her husband of 24 years. Formerly sharp and intellectual, Caro’s life has become a fluid drifting between reality, dreams and medication-induced hallucinations in which she recounts her distant past and attempts to reconstruct what might have happen had she chosen a different life path.
“The wind is warm and cold, warm and cold,” writes Reeves, “and Caro is floating beside the girl and the boy, past the bison and the wild horses, over the white hills, across the bad lands they must cross.”
The beauty in death, the past rushing in to meet the present, and the trick of the morphine-cajoled memory, renders Badlands reminiscent of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, but without the cinematic grandeur, the breathless romance or the tease of a happy ending. Instead, Reeves writes of loss in sharply gorgeous language with no measures taken to spare the reader from life’s cruelest moments.
At one point, husband character Daniel wonders, “Will he be like the transplant patient who acquires the donor’s urges — a craving for sushi or the yearning to windsurf — by taking possession of his wife’s habits once she dies?”
Running concurrent to Caro’s physical death is her memory sequence of studying the Sioux tribe, a dying culture in South Dakota’s Badlands region. This loss of a people, projected against a desert landscape of savage loveliness, makes for a workable metaphor — both for Caro’s passing and for the constant flux of human life. That use of Native American culture as analogy also earns Badlands at least a minor comparison to Louise Erdich’s brutal and revealing Love Medicine.
The author’s note in Badlands offers that Reeves is currently at work on a new novel set in post-World War I Italy. With her first book she’s already proven her ability to tackle tough topics and flesh out historical minutiae with poetic savvy. Fans of introspective literature should keep a watch for this up and coming novelist.
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter