This book is almost an exact midpoint in American cultural understandings of the South (as told by white people) and its role and impact on racial identity and relations in this country (from a white perspective). It was published in 1964 and is simultaneously earnest, over its head, and too ambitious. And it does each of these in various ways throughout.
I started listening to the audiobook of this because it’s referenced in the newest Laura Lippmann novel, The Lady in the Lake, but a pseudo-well meaning white lady who says the book has some interesting things to say about “the Negro problem”. And it does, it really does. But it’s also a very white lady book to write, fully well knowing (through its own reference to Paris being a safe-haven for ex-pat African Americans) that others out there have a better finger on the pulse of the nation.
So the novel takes place over several generations of a rich Southern family in a county in Alabama. Told mostly through passed on family histories and personal accounts (and direct narration) we learn of the lineage and history and the closely-guarded secrets. We also get a long perspective from the most recent generation, who sees itself as a transition away or changing element from the past. And we get some narration from the various Black figures in their lives, who set on the outskirts, knowing these white people more than they know themselves, but who don’t even know their names.
In the meantime the book itself is generally well-written, but doesn’t quite know what it wants (and that’s consistent with the themes! but not purposeful I think — she’s not a Toni Morrison narrator admitting halfway through the book to not being up to the task). It wants to borrow from and remix Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren, but it’s just not in the card. In addition, the various Black writers she would be aware of and obliquely hints at (James Baldwin, Ann Petry, Richard Wright, and Dorothy West) are already out there for us to read.
It’s an ok novel that tries to capture something it’s not up to task to capture.