REVIEWED BY SHERYL MONKS
Fallen Land by Taylor Brown / St. Martin’s / Debuts today, Jan. 12, 2016 / ISBN: 978-1250077974 / 288 pgs.
Debut novelist Taylor Brown makes writing historical fiction look easy. In Fallen Land, the storytelling is so straightforward as to seem at times impossibly so.
We meet Callum, fifteen years old by the last year of the Civil War, and youngest member of a group of Partisan Rangers, ordered by Lee himself to disband, but who’ve nonetheless clung together to carry out exploits suited to their own designs. As the book opens, the group descends upon a homestead it intends to raid, and therein Callum encounters the only surviving inhabitant, 17-year-old Ava. Easy enough to see where this is going: a beautiful girl, a boy experiencing his first fits of desire, and a lusty horde of hardened criminals. But Brown complicates the narrative not in ways that surprise so much as they add fullness. Nothing is spoiled if I tell you there’s a struggle and further complications that force the couple to run. I’ll leave it to you to find out why and where to.
What matters is that Brown keeps the story moving, not with a lot of shenanigans, things you’ve seen before, things you think you know about war. A lesser writer would be tempted to shock, to heighten the conflict in ways that reveal the writer’s own doubt in his ability to keep a reader’s interest. Not Brown. He’s got a good story, and he knows it. Moreover, he knows that he’s the one to tell it.
A journey story, almost too guileless a vehicle, or maybe just the opposite when we consider the great epics. But Brown is neither posturing as Homer nor constructing for himself a rudimentary architecture that will help him learn how to write a first novel. Rather he is fully in command and taking his time. As Goethe says: “Do not hurry; do not rest.” Brown draws authority from his cunning ability to describe the world his characters inhabit. The accuracy and patience expressed in his rendering of detail brings to mind John Ehle or Cormac McCarthy. I’ll never forget the lengths to which Ehle forced his characters to eke out a life in the Appalachian frontier in his novel The Land Breakers. Not a simple slapping together of a cabin and raising crops. No, sir. First the trees were felled and logs notched and stacked to build walls. Planks were hewn and then the hewn boards were fitted together to make a door. Chinking was used to stuff the cracks, and so on.
But whereas Ehle’s detail bears weight so that a reader feels the characters’ exhaustion simply from the day-to-day work required to stay alive, Brown’s details sink us deeply into action and sweep us away.
Consider, for instance, this early passage from Fallen Land:
“They rode horses of all colors, all bloods. ‘Strays,’ they called them, tongue in cheek. Horses that offered themselves for the good of the country, under no lock and key. The quality of a man’s mount was no measure of rank, a measure instead of luck and cunning and sometimes, oftentimes, cruelty.
The boy went to mount his own, a fly-bitten nag with a yellow-blond coat in some places, gray patches of hairless skin in others. She’d been a woman’s horse once, most likely. The men used to joke about this. Then one of their favorites, an informal company jester, had been blown right from her back. The mare had stood there unmoved, flicking her ears, biting grass from the trampled soil. No one save the Colonel enjoyed a horse so steady. They left off joking.”
Sometimes I hear echoes of Ann Pancake or Ron Rash in Brown’s poetic phrasing: “Faces skull-gone, mouths hidden in the gnarled bush of their beards, showing only their teeth.” Brown moves beyond the level of relevant, sensual detail to utterly and convincingly inhabiting point-of-view, so fully immersing a reader in the absolute, undeniable particulars that there’s no question but that we are in the hands of a storyteller who will not, won’t, cannot disappoint us.
The story is sweeping, cinematic, but it’s no re-run. Brown sees with his own naked eye, showing the landscape from mountain to seashore with deep penetration and wonder, leaving sentimentality to those with lesser imaginations. No showboating either, although this is a writer who certainly could. It’s Brown’s restraint that is virtuoso, that eviscerates when you come upon a scene like this one:
“He walked toward the cows, unfolding the small blade from the handle. He looked at the big one. He did not want to kill more than they could take. He looked at the smaller one, grazing close behind its mother. Its bright eyes welled with his reflection, and it became nervous. He started talking to it. Comforting it. Speaking in a low and soothing murmur. He got close enough to lay his free hand on the notch between the eyes. He rubbed it there. It looked up at him. He flicked the blade across the neck from underneath, laying open the artery. The calf screamed, and its mother, seeing, leapt backward with a long moan. But she could do nothing. The small heart continued to beat. It pumped in mindless cadence, machineline, all that life spurting red-bright and rhythmic into the morning sun. The calf staggered and sank to the ground, then laid its head down as the spurts grew weaker and weaker, fountain dwindling. Callum watched the white wisping of the calf’s breath diminish in the cold air. The once-bright eyes became glazed, unseeing.”
Brown knows that it’s seeing what’s coming that builds tension. I held my breath here and at other moments in the story, and just when I felt it was safe to exhale, Brown plunges deeper, showing us what we cannot look away from, promising that if we have the courage to watch, to listen, he will lead us safely through this darkened landscape, this fallen land.
Oftentimes gritty, as when the couple wakes to discover they’ve slept unawares beside a corpse and at other times edging toward humor — they meet a moonshiner known as “Lachlan the Alchemist” — Brown’s prose is as steady and trustworthy, as dauntless as the fly-bitten mare which he describes. Fallen Land is a feat in glorious storytelling by a young writer who deserves every bit of praise you’re hearing about him.
Sheryl Monks is an editor at Change Seven. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. Her collection of stories All the Girls in France was a finalist for the 2013 Hudson Prize sponsored by Black Lawrence Press. Her fiction has earned a Northwest NC Regional Artist’s Project Grant and the Reynolds Price Short Fiction Award. Work has appeared or is forthcoming in Split Lip Magazine, The Butter, Revolution John, Black and Grey Magazine, The Greensboro Review, Pine Hills Review, the Writer’s Chronicle, Midwestern Gothic, Night Train, storySouth, RE:AL–Regarding Arts and Letters, Backwards City Review, Southern Gothic online, Surreal South, Fried Chicken and Coffee, and elsewhere.