Sunday, October 25, 2009

Family Linen by Lee Smith

Lee Smith is a very fine contemporary southern writer. She grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southwestern Virginia and is married to journalist Hal Crowther. Dorothea Benton Frank (another wonderful author of low country tales) calls her an artist of the first order and arguably one of the most important voices in American fiction writing today.

Lee Smith says she wrote Family Linen after seeing a news story in the Raleigh newspaper about a schoolteacher who under hypnosis revealed a terrifying childhood experience where she had witnessed her mother kill her father, then chop him up and stuff him down an outhouse. The teacher confronted her mother, a pillar of the community, and her mother immediately drove her car out into the middle of a tobacco field and shot herself.

Family Linen starts out with a repressed memory of murder brought out by a hypnotist, then with rambling style and much humor leads us through a funeral that leads to a family reunion, during the course of which the family's secrets are aired like dirty linen. Smith's characters are entertaining, but behind the humor is some serious stuff. Smith has a special knack of combining humor, sadness, absurdity, horror, and tragedy with great skill and understanding. This book is full of those outrageous eccentrics that seem to inhabit the south, but the writing style is everyday, colloquial, and distinctly American. It is an absorbing novel of family life with all its various dysfunction and hilarity.

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