Today’s team review is from Olga. She blogs here https://www.authortranslatorolga.com
Olga has been reading Fleuringala by M.K.B. Graham
Although M. K. B. Graham had submitted her first novel to Rosie’s team a few years back, I somehow missed it then, but I’m very pleased to have discovered this gem now. What a gorgeous read!
The novel is listed under the categories of ‘historical fiction’ and ‘coming of age fiction’ and they are both appropriate. The story is set in the late 1930s and early 40s, mostly in Virginia, a setting that the author knows well and several generations of her family have grown in. The protagonists (Tack [he is called Albert, like his Dad, but from the beginning it proved difficult to share the name, and he became known as Tack], and Ruby) live plenty of adventures, many together and some separately, but Lauderville and the rest of the settings they visit play almost as important a part as they do, and the book excels at making readers feel as if they were totally immersed in the experience, walking the streets, smelling the aromas, touching the fabrics, seeing the colours, and talking to the inhabitants of the town, and later, of Suwanalee (North Carolina), Charleston, and Fleuringala (yes, the title comes from a property and its quasi-magical gardens), and although some of those are fictional, it is evident that their creation has been inspired by real small towns and by a period of history that might feel far off, but it not as distant some things haven’t changed as much as we’d like to believe.
This is Tack’s coming of age story, although Rudy does a lot of growing as well (but she is much younger and still a child as we leave her). He graduates from high school, gets his first car, gets his first job (and that causes upset with his father, as he wanted him to carry on with the family business, because he is the only boy in a family of girls, and the youngest), and eventually gets to move away from home, live independently, and takes on the responsibility of looking after another human being. I don’t want to summarise the whole novel here and leave readers with no surprises, but the story brought to my mind some of the classics in the genre, like Huckleberry Finn (mentioned in the book as well), To Kill a Mockingbird (although here, poverty, lack of social standing, and behaviours that are not considered ‘socially acceptable or in good taste’ are the cause behind much of the discrimination and suffering that ensues, rather than race, which does not feature in the book), and others like Little Women, a big favourite of mine. Tack is a young man, of course, but his selfless behaviour and the way he cares for others place the focus of the novel in characteristics other than those that tend to be more common in coming of age novels whose central characters are male, which often focus on the quest motif, adventures and dangers. Yes, Tack experiences plenty of those as well (they come across many obstacles, moments of self-doubt, and terrible trials), but not just out of a thirst for adventure or a desire to become independent and go looking for freedom. Those things also happen, but seem to be the unintended consequences of the interest he takes in Ruby and her welfare.
There are elements of the fairy tale as well (Fleuringala and its owner made me think of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Selfish Giant,’ minus the religious symbolism), and as would be the case in a fairy tale, there are characters that play the part of fairy godmothers (several in fact), out and out villains (Ruby’s mother, Gilda, although one has to wonder at how she might have been like, had her circumstances been different; Tack’s older sister; the car man [a true monster]…), there are magical castles/gardens, animal companions and defenders (Arly is a hero), something close to a miracle transformation, happy coincidences aplenty, and yes a HEA ending as well (with a final surprise, although I had my suspicions about that). Some of the characters seem to be larger than life, as if a caricaturist had emphasised their features for laughter or to bring them to our attention, but they all (or most) have their human side. Don’t think that means this is a book that deals in light and fluffy subjects. Far from it. Even though this is not the typical story about the dark side of small America, where behind the veneer of civilization festers an underbelly of crime and corruption, we can still find child abuse and neglect, a horrific scene where Ruby is in terrible danger (well, two, but quite different in nature), plenty of prejudice, gossip (oh, those Mavens), and a good deal of suffering and disappointment. But, fear not, there are moments of comic relief (Maxine is wonderful if a bit over the top and I quite appreciate her friend Ira as well; Albert had his moments; and I loved Francine’s Beauty Parlor and the goings on there), plenty of smiles and happy events, beautiful descriptions of places, and a gorgeous rendering of the language of the people, turns of phrases, and local sayings and idioms. And, Ruby. The little girl is a light that shines through the whole story, (almost) always optimistic, willing to think the best of people and to give everybody a second chance. She is a transformative force, and she changes all she meets for the better.
I’ve mentioned the beautiful language and writing. The story is written in the third person, from an omniscient point of view, which, although I know some readers don’t appreciate, I felt that in this case it worked well to bring us closer to all the characters and to make us appreciate what moves them and what they are really like. It also foreshadows what is to come, giving us hints and insights, and preparing us in advance for both good and bad news. Most of the story follows chronologically the events from the moment Tack sees Ruby from the first time, although there are some chapters where it provides background information about some of the other characters, allowing readers to get a clearer picture of where they are coming from and helping us get a clearer understanding of their reactions, their behaviours, turning it into something of a collective narrative, and not only the story of the two main characters. We might or might not like some of the people we meet, but we get to understand them a bit better.
I highlighted plenty of sentences and full paragraphs as I read, and I’ll follow my usual policy of recommending possible readers to check a sample of the book if they can, but I’ll share a couple of random examples, to give you a taste:
All Tack knew was that here in Lauderville, a little town tucked in the bumpy toe of Virginia as close to Tennessee as a blanket is to a sheet, the winters were cold, the springs and autumns were nice, and the summers could be pleasant —or hot as Hades. Like today.
Here, talking about the Maven’s behaviour at Francine’s Beauty Parlor:
They shamelessly, deliberately, and corporately encouraged Gilda the way a child is prodded to repeat a dirty word. That she could run her mouth faster and louder than an un-muffled Chevy only added to her appeal. And with her ability to spin an innuendo faster than a frog can snatch a fly, she entertained the Mavens who would not miss it for anything short of the funeral of a close relative—although not one among them would admit it. Everybody around her sat and listened, assured that their own stations in life were considerably loftier than Gilda’s.
I have mentioned the ending, and yes, I’m sure it won’t disappoint readers. I felt sad for losing sight of the characters, but the ending is pretty perfect, in the way the best fairy tales and happy novels can be, especially when the characters have gone through so much. It’s easy to imagine what their lives will be like from then on, and the outlook is excellent.
This is a wonderful novel, and I enjoyed it enormously. It is not realistic and gritty in the standard sense, but if I had to include any warnings, as I’d mentioned before there is a scene that is fairly explicit and terrifying, and another one that will cause heartache to most readers who love pets; and child abuse and neglect are important themes in the story. Of course, if one thinks of classic fairy tales, they are not mild or non-violent, can be terrifying, and often feature abuse, neglect, abandonment, cruel behaviours and worse. I wouldn’t recommend this novel to people looking for a hard and totally realistic account of life in 1930s small town America, but readers looking for a magical story, with wonderful characters, a strong sense of place, the nostalgic feel of an era long gone, and beautiful writing peppered with local expressions and idioms, will love this novel. I can’t wait to see what the author with delight us with, next.
Abandoned by her no-count mother in a rundown shack on the outskirts of Lauderville, Virginia, seven-year-old Ruby Glory is alone. Her only friend and sole companion is her faithful dog, Arly. Then along comes Tack, the teenage son of Lauderville’s prominent and well-heeled Pittman family. Despite his sincere desire to help Ruby, Tack learns quickly that no good deed goes unpunished. His involvement with the child of a women of ill-repute sends his family and the citizens of Lauderville into a frenzy of rumors and gossip, presenting Tack with a dilemma. Will the uproar spell the end for the mismatched friends—or set in motion opportunities that Tack and Ruby could only imagine?