It’s set in the mountains, it’s about a rural family living close to poverty, and it involves dysfunctional quiet love. What’s not to like about this novel (which came out in 2005)?
And yet, when I opened it and saw that the author used the first person narratives of several different people to tell the story, my first thought was Oh no. Most people can’t keep characterization well enough to pull that off successfully. The people don’t sound different, don’t want different things, don’t act as though they are, as Stephen King more or less put it, the stars of their own lives.
Bailey not only pulled off this technique, of all things, he did it by means of a weird kind of failure. His writing is pretty, ornate, descriptive to the point that I admit to sometimes skimming because I’m not that kind of reader. I don’t like long descriptions of wooded areas. (I accept this as a failing in me as a reader, and insert it here so you know whether to trust me as a reviewer.)
But I love, love, love when a writer gets inside the heads of others and makes the writing sound like them. And Bailey’s success at failing is that he did this not by changing the dialect or lexicon, but by changing what they want to talk about and how they want to talk about it intellectually. All Bailey’s characters – the father, the two sons, the mom, the girlfriends and the neighbors–have similar vocabulary. Yet they have very different points of aim to their lives and conversation. I liked this approach.
The building sense of tragedy, the inevitable moment that’s foreshadowed in the mom’s opening volley, lying in bed listening to her three men take off for their hunt, keeps the whole book’s plot humming with a kind of relentless bass thrum; you aren’t so much watching a train wreck as a ballet dancer fall. It’s a graceful tragedy, bittersweet in its one-step-removed sense of what it means for the family left behind.
In this novel, tragedy is masked in beauty and quietness. Even the hardcore parts about logging and shooting and men hitting each other are written in that once-removed elegance that must have frustrated the tar out of some readers. I like bittersweet, so I loved Grace. I’m now looking for Bailey’s other novel (Cotton Song, I think) to hit the bookshop at some point.