Oomph. If I had one word to describe "Falling to Earth," by Kate Southwood, oomph would be that word. I approached this book, which I assigned for my May book club, warily. The early press and accolades were far from subtle, praising the author, the story and the prose as nothing short of remarkable. Further, it was another American author and American-set work from Europa. While Europa has published far fewer American works than those from other parts of the world, I have (with the exception of "Everything Happens Today") thoroughly enjoyed works like "Wichita," "Zeroville," and "These Dreams of You." All of the above set a rather high bar going in.
The critics and reviewers are correct; this is a brilliant novel. It is most assuredly not the novel you need to bring with you to the beach, pool or park for a light spring or summer day. It's gut wrenching from the first page to the last. Southwood grips you from the first page, introducing us to the Graves family the morning of the Tri-State tornado of 1925, and not really letting us go once we finish the last page. Call it a testament to her strength as a writer that I was heartbroken by the destruction to this town full of people I didn't know and yet at the same time I had a clear picture in my head of each of the Graves family as if I'd lived next door for years. The physical destruction of the tornado, taking up the first third of the book, had all the detail of a news report and all the action and suspense of the best "Twister" scenes. It's harrowing, dramatic and frenetic.
It's also just the beginning. Post-tornado, the real destruction begins amid the rebuilding of Marah. Southwood has her hand on the pulse of what brings out the best and worst of human nature making what unfolds among the citizens of Marah and the Graves family is tragic, powerful and devastating-all without any clear villain or demarcated line between right and wrong. Another strength Southwood brings is her ability to make the personal and intimate tragedies just as powerful as the epic nature of the tornado, or perhaps it's the way she makes the tornado as intimate and powerful as the personal, individual tragedies that follow. Either way, a book this gloomy should not be the page-turner it turns out to be. And yet, as the final chapters unfold and I panned out from the final scene, for all its loss and heartbreak and tragedy it is not by any stretch a hopeless book. That sounds confusing even as I write it, and I cannot point to any specific instances where this hope comes through, but hope remains nonetheless.
I'm looking forward to what my book club says about "Falling to Earth," curious to see if they see Southwood's book as nothing more than elegant tragedy porn or if they too see something beyond the story and into her ruminations on the inherent strengths and failings of the human spirit. I would recommend this book to everyone here on the Challenge blog, save this for that rainy summer weekend afternoon and perhaps a good bottle of wine. I'll end not with my words, but with Southwood's:
"A tornado is a spasm is a thundercloud, a thing of chance arising out of nature. It might touch down, and it might not. A tornado is a ravenous thing, untroubled by the distinction in tearing one man apart and gently setting another down a little distance away. It is resolute and makes its unheeding progress until, bloated and replete, it dissipates. A tornado is a dead thing and cannot acknowledge blame. If a tornado smashes your house or takes your child, it does no good to blame it. You can even rail against God, and it will be no use. The tornado is gone, used up. You can't throw it into reverse and resurrect your house and your child by laying blame. And even after you've yanked up another house in the place your old one stood and planted flowers in the dirt where you laid your child, your fury remains as well as your desire to lay blame."