A few years ago I had to find a place…
Carrie Mullins. Night Garden. Lexington, Ky.: Old Cove Press, 2016. 241 pages. Softcover. $16.00.
The aptly titled Night Garden by Carrie Mullins is a virtual seedbed of characters— characters whose virtues are hidden in the shadows of their circumstances, fertilized by an apathetic economy, isolated by geographic region, and choked out by drugs and depravity.
The novel is narrated in the voice of Marie, a seventeen-year-old protagonist coming of age in a place with very little light, forced to bloom where she is planted. Through a series of poor choices, Marie navigates dysfunctional relationships, grief, abuse and teen pregnancy while searching for solid ground where she can grow.
Mullins’s use of metaphor and tone are evident in the opening scene: “Marie, her brother Shane, and their teacher Ms. Anglin got out of the car…They had to go around the wet mud pit in the middle of the road, had to walk up into the woods a little bit, over rocks they couldn’t see for dead leaves, and then back down onto the wide path, until the shadows they’d been watching became people…”
The shadows became people. This is much more than a description. These “shadows” surround Marie throughout the novel and become the rocks and dead leaves that Marie must climb over to survive with any sense of self. Her brother having an affair with his teacher is simply a matter of fact, only one of many facts that may surprise the reader yet seem second nature to the narrator. Everyone in the narrator’s life has a distorted view of reality and Marie seems to have adapted the same, accepting her lot as normal. She doesn’t view herself as a victim which makes her a refreshing yet unreliable protagonist. She narrates her story almost as if she’s numb. In this way Mullins delivers the harsh truth of the region in which her characters inhabit without judgment, hyperbole or apology. We are given the facts through the narrator’s eyes and left to make our own assessment.
Mullins’s command of language is enviable. She is stealthy, quiet, her pacing deliberate. Using words such as dark and shadow and phrases such as “climbing over rocks hidden by dead leaves,” Mullins prepares the ground for a garden that blooms in the night.
This debut novel is a beautiful garden nonetheless tended with care and watered with hope. Hers is a well-honed craft, paying particular attention to detail and technicality. Rich in symbolism as well as sense of place, this Appalachian based novel is character driven, highly literary, and yet also a page turner. It does not fall into the trap of shock value and stereotypes to push the narrative forward as might catch the attention of the masses. Yet Mullins does not shy away from the underbelly of the region. Her characters are real, raw, fully drawn human beings, both vulnerable and tough, whose choices, though sometimes limited by circumstance, render lasting consequences. Her narrative is forthright but compassionate as she lends us her microscope to view the inner workings of a tight knit, albeit dysfunctional, community. Though set in Appalachia it is much more than a regional tale, it is a story of the current human condition and thus has universal appeal. Night Garden is a jewel.