Set in a contemporary North Carolina town that has been deteriorating for some time, No One is Coming to Save Us is a thoughtful novel about coming to terms with one’s past and building a future. It is about thwarted dreams, dreams that characters expected would “save” them had they been realized. What does one do with the shards of broken dreams?
The story opens with JJ Ferguson’s return to Pinewood, NC, which once had a booming economy, but jobs are dwindling as the furniture factories close and move abroad. JJ has been away for about 20 years, but he has come back a rich man and is building a house on a hill in the affluent part of town, which is quite unusual for a black man in Pinewood. His goal is to reconnect with Ava, the young woman he knew and loved growing up, but Ava is married and trying desperately to conceive a child with her husband Henry. Ava’s mother Sylvia, approaching retirement age, is wary of JJ and his intentions. While Sylvia never cared for Henry, she sees nothing good resulting from a relationship developing between Ava and JJ. Sylvia is at the heart of the novel and the reader sees much of what is happening in the town and within this family through her eyes. Sylvia has been unhappily married to Don, father to Ava and Devon, for 40 years. She hates her husband and his cheating ways but cannot bring herself to sever all relations with him. Sylvia is lonely and depressed. Her dreams have come to naught and her beloved son Devon is gone, though we don’t know exactly where he is until later in the novel. Sylvia has developed an unusual relationship with Marcus, a young man in prison who dialed Sylvia’s number randomly one day and started an unexpected friendship. Sylvia encourages him to persevere, to remain hopeful and prepare for rebuilding a life after prison. Meanwhile, Sylvia retreats into her own small world and her sadness.
The main characters in this novel, who are so beautifully drawn by author Watts, are dealing with the frustration and sadness of dreams unfulfilled. Henry is still working at the furniture factory, but it’s not a job he cares much for and he knows it won’t be long before the factory is gone. He and Ava have drifted apart even though they are still trying to have a child, which is Ava’s dream. In fact, having a child is Ava’s obsession, and her frequent miscarriages and advancing age contribute to her desperation and depression. JJ’s return doesn’t seem to elicit much excitement from Ava although she is interested in seeing his new place and finding out where he has been for 20 years. It’s not until a piece of unexpected news rocks Ava’s world that she considers upending the life she has worked so hard to make for herself. JJ hopes that he and Ava will be able to pick up where they left off, in his mind, 20 years ago, but it’s not that easy for Ava.
The situations that Watts’ characters face beg the question, how do we get on with our lives after all that has happened, especially after all the bad stuff? Sylvia and Ava struggle with traumas from the past that they simply cannot get over. Watts’ writing about these women’s internal suffering, the depression that threatens to consume them, is powerful stuff:
She wished she could cry but she couldn’t feel anything but the cracking apart, the hollow feeling of impotent despair.
There is an instinct to hide, and against our better thinking we find the darkest place to squeeze ourselves into. Someone has to be able to find you on those days. Somebody has to pull you out.
JJ has had his own traumas, and one way he tried to deal with them was to simply walk away from Pinewood, to cut off all ties with it. Yet he returns because of the one great memory he had there — of Ava (and Sylvia, who was like a mother to him). JJ has found a way to hang onto the good memories without letting the bad overpower them. Even though he may not realize his dream in coming back to Pinewood, he possesses a certain resilience that most other characters have not demonstrated. The question is whether they will learn how to manage the past and its pain before they are overwhelmed completely by it.
Watts ends the novel in a manner that feels authentic. The characters’ problems are complicated and so the resolution cannot be a simple one. But the choices that characters make feel real and believable. No One is Coming to Save Us is an impressive debut novel from a writer who beautifully captures the internal struggles of a town and its residents as they come to terms with the past and try to build the future they have dreamed of.