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A Shout in the Ruins by Kevin Powers

BOTTOM LINE: I liked the historical bits but that’s about it.

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publication Date: 15 May 2018
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“Spanning over one hundred years, from the antebellum era to the 1980’s, A Shout in the Ruins examines the fates of the inhabitants of Beauvais Plantation outside of Richmond, Virginia. When war arrives, the master of Beauvais, Anthony Levallios, foresees that dominion in a new America will be measured not in acres of tobacco under cultivation by his slaves, but in industry and capital. A grievously wounded Confederate veteran loses his grip on a world he no longer understands, and his daughter finds herself married to Levallois, an arrangement that feels little better than imprisonment. And two people enslaved at Beauvais plantation, Nurse and Rawls, overcome impossible odds to be together, only to find that the promise of coming freedom may not be something they will live to see.

Seamlessly interwoven is the story of George Seldom, a man orphaned by the storm of the Civil War, looking back from the 1950s on the void where his childhood ought to have been. Watching the government destroy his neighborhood to build a stretch of interstate highway through Richmond, he travels south in an attempt to recover his true origins. With the help of a young woman named Lottie, he goes in search of the place he once called home, all the while reckoning with the more than 90 years he lived as witness to so much that changed during the 20th century, and so much that didn’t. As we then watch Lottie grapple with life’s disappointments and joys in the 1980’s, now in her own middle-age, the questions remain: How do we live in a world built on the suffering of others? And can love exist in a place where for 400 years violence has been the strongest form of intimacy?”

My Thoughts: As a story about the individuals on a plantation affected by the Civil War, A Shout in the Ruins is a decent novel. The individual stories are interesting, if not necessarily new, and the characters have enough development to become more than one-dimensional. It becomes easy to imagine that their stories occurring hundreds of years ago. Honestly, they probably have in some form or another.

As a novel trying to get you to contemplate life and love amidst a history of violence, A Shout in the Ruins is lacking. There is an absence of continuity between the various time periods that is disruptive. The interrupted flow of the story diminishes any lessons one might obtain from the characters’ insights. In addition, there is a heavy-handedness to these lessons which is somewhat repellent. You want these personal insights to be a natural part of the novel. Instead, Mr. Powers all but force feeds them to you. In doing so, he loses you as a reader, and you end up skimming exactly those points he so desperately wants you to read.

You are left wondering whether there is anything original in A Shout in the Ruins worth evaluating. After all, there are numerous stories about slaves and their plantation owners already in existence. There is no need for yet one more novel, written by a white man, about this time period. Mr. Powers offers nothing new in the way of insight or historical fact, and his lessons about love and violence and the Civil War era plantation life feel wrong given his ethnicity.

The only reason I stayed with the story is that I grew to like the characters, particularly Nurse, Rawls, and George. I wanted to see how they fared in the end, hoping it was not going to end like so many other slavery/black man stories. I remained pleasantly surprised by their stories and the details within them. Thus, as a novel of historical fiction, A Shout in the Ruins is decent It is well-written with developed characters that play on your sympathies and keep your interest. It is only when the novel attempts to become literary fiction where it loses you. Its attempts to provide life lessons the author should not be providing leave you more confused than anything, and the obviousness of these lessons makes you resent and skip them, further compounding the confusion. It is a shame actually that Mr. Powers chose not to stick with straight historical fiction. The novel would be much stronger had he done so.

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