CBR-V Review #37: American Ghost by Janis Owen

Jolie Hoyt is the cautious and reserved daughter of a Pentecostal preacher, living in Hendrix, a tiny town in rural Florida. On the night before her best friend, Lena, leaves for college, Jolie gets set up on a date with Sam Lense, an anthropology student at the University of Miami doing research on the racial makeup of the community. Uncharacteristically, she begins a passionate love affair with him, despite his outsider status in her tight-knit town; their relationship ends abruptly and violently when Sam is discovered to have delved too deeply into the town’s–and the Hoyt family’s– checkered past. Years later, they find themselves pushed together once more by a curious stranger, and they must revisit their relationship and Hendrix’s ugly history.

I really enjoyed this book, despite the dark subject matter. I have a weird fascination with books about the South, even though (or maybe because) I’ve never been, and I think this book cement’s Owen’s place in the pantheon of great female Southern writers. Florida is an especially ripe setting for a novel (Karen Russell is another fabulous modern Southern writer who focuses on that state) given its slightly wild, untamed qualities, and it works perfectly in American Ghost. The heat, the isolation, the racial tensions of the area all come together as an incredible backdrop–and, in some ways, a character of its own–in this story. To write a book that is so heavily focused on a specific place, and uses place so much to support and explain the characters and plot, an author really needs to know and love and understand it. Owen clearly does, and I don’t know that the story could have succeeded in the hands of another writer.

Owen has a flair for character, I think even more so than for plot. All of her characters, but especially Jolie, are vivid and totally unique, and are clear products of the environment in which they were bred. Jolie’s relationship with Sam was the strongest component of the novel–it was real and raw and I felt deeply for both characters. The middle part of the novel, set years, later felt weaker to me, probably because the chemistry between the two wasn’t showcased as much.

The story is based on a lynching that took place in the 1930s, and I think it’s a good framing piece for the story. I wasn’t as interested in the investigations into the lynching (as in, who the perpetrators were and how it shaped the town) as I was in the lynching itself, and the scenes describing it are truly horrifying. Owen never crosses the line into sensationalism, keeping the story grounded and honest at all times, which I appreciated. This is an incredibly layered book that appreciates and honors the nuances and complexity surrounding heritage, race, and the actions of our ancestors.

I was pretty engrossed in this book–the middle third or so, as I mentioned above, lagged a bit but not so much that it colored my love of the novel overall–and was totally captivated by the voice, the tone, the personality. It’s just a unique book and I really love reading things that are fresh and don’t feel “done.”

This was such a good book and I really hope more people read it, because it isn’t getting as much as buzz as it deserves. Definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year.

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