All the Living

A young woman on a lonely farm struggles with competing desires for love and freedom in this thoughtful debut novel.

All the Living By C. E. Morgan Farrar, Straus, Giroux $23 208 pages

Aloma is nobody’s idea of a farm wife. She can’t cook, milk, take care of livestock, or garden. (Also, she isn’t married.) Nor does the young musician have any interest in these chores.

But nonetheless, she finds herself trapped on a Kentucky farm within sight of the mountains she always promised herself she would escape.

Love and good intentions are what brought Aloma to the farm, as C.E. Morgan details in her thoughtful first novel, All the Living. Orphaned at three and raised since adolescence at the settlement school where she worked once she graduated, all Aloma has ever dreamed of is music school – preferably somewhere far away.

She wrecks these dreams in the time-honored tradition of teenage girls: She falls in love, with Orren, a local farm boy. And when his family is killed in an accident and he asks her to come live with him on the farm, she does.

When she arrives, Orren is changed by grief and desperation. “The tips of his eyelashes were pale as straw now, bleached from the sun so it seemed he had no eyelashes at all, nothing to impede his gaze.”

The small house she thought they would live in is sealed up as a shrine to the dead and instead she’s in charge of a tottering wreck. And the piano she was promised has been destroyed by neglect: “The sound was spoiled like a meat.”

Aloma figures out how to cook and clean, but even living in the same house, she feels separated from Orren, who is working nonstop to save the family farm in a drought that has turned the dirt “pale as cocoa powder.”

Aloma, who has no memory of her family, finds herself unable to empathize. “She had never been driven by the imminent loss of something like a home. It was more a matter of what she did not have than of what she could not stand to lose.”

And what she does not have is a piano. She reads musical scores instead of books and practices her fingering on the kitchen counter. As in the 1993 Holly Hunter movie “The Piano,” Aloma finds herself drawn to the man who can provide her with an instrument – the local preacher, Bell (who bears absolutely no resemblance to Harvey Keitel).

But “All the Living” isn’t a feminist fable wrapped in a Gothic romance; it’s a morality play, slow-moving and considered. (Given that Aloma is expected to suppress her own desires for her not-husband’s, frankly, a little more feminism wouldn’t have been a bad thing from where I’m sitting.)

As Orren turns ever more taciturn, Aloma wrestles with her friendship with Bell and her dream of being a professional musician and, frankly, just finally getting away.
“Something unfamiliar rose up in her and it stuck in her throat like a homesickness, but she had no home, it was a longing that referred to nothing in the world.”

If that sounds a little somber, it’s leavened by the sheer beauty of Morgan’s prose. And with its Appalachian setting and atmosphere of quiet, “All the Living” puts one in mind of the novels of Tony Earley (“The Blue Star” and “Jim: The Boy”).

Morgan does love a lyrical description, as when Aloma walks into the neglected farmhouse for the first time. “Over her head a porch fan hung spinless, trailing its cobwebs like old hair, its spiders gone.”

And sometimes she goes overboard with the pretty phrases. Take, for example, “one sulling eyebrow.” Sullen? Sorrel? My dictionary could not help me out.

Then there was Orren’s “bookless voice” – I have no idea what this means, or why Aloma would find it attractive. But Morgan hits more than she misses, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with swinging for the linguistic fences.

While the plot seems to settle on the question of “which man will she choose” (Choice C, where she gets on a bus and heads out of town, doesn’t get much consideration), “All the Living” has a thematic and descriptive richness. The novel exudes the lonely silence with which Aloma has always lived.

Meanwhile, Aloma tries to figure out how going through the motions becomes your real life and whether she and Orren can survive when “what looks like patience tastes like despair,” as Bell puts it in one of his sermons.

Morgan writes with assurance and moral seriousness. Future novels could put the Harvard theological graduate in the company of Gail Godwin or even Marilynne Robinson as one of the rare writers who can combine religion and fiction without sacrificing either.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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