Thursday, May 27, 2010

Less Is More

All the Living
by C.E. Morgan

This is an unpretentious, exquisite story that will worm its way into the reader's consciousness and reside there for a long time. The starkness of the farming landscape coupled with the isolation within the hearts of the main characters is striking and palpable throughout. All the Living is a quick read, written in the spare style of hardworking farm folk, but Morgan manages to convey a host of emotions and dilemmas. Sometimes she does this more by what she does not say than by what she does.

Aloma and Orren, the two protagonists, are lost souls seeking desperately to find their way. For much of the story, it is unclear if they will do that together or apart. Even at the end there is some ambiguity in the midst of the reconciliation. Aloma has grown up in an orphanage, while Orren and his brother are raised by their widowed mother on a farm. It is the sudden and tragic death of Orren's mother and brother in a car accident that prompts Aloma to move to Orren's farm and begin a new phase of their relationship. Aloma and Orren had been "together" before the car wreck, but mostly in a superficial way that did not dwell much on the future or the direction of the relationship. They are both young and lonely people, and it is mostly about the sex.

Orren and Aloma quickly come to realize that sex will only carry you so far in a relationship. Aloma longs for comfort and companionship and tenderness, while Orren is preoccupied with running his family farm alone and getting out of debt. The issues that crop up between them are familiar to most married couples, but it is the desolate way that Morgan expresses them that makes the descriptions so raw and wrenching. Sometimes the pain hanging in the air as Aloma and Orren try and fail to connect is almost unbearable.

Another prevalent theme in the story is the spiritual solace that Aloma takes in music (she is an accomplished pianist). As a music lover myself, I could see how Aloma could get lost in her gift, but her preoccupation with playing does begin to intrude on her relationship with Owen (not to mention her crush on a kind-hearted pastor at the church where she plays piano to earn money). That tension in the relationship brings up another common marital dilemma - finding the balance between the things that feed our own souls and the care and nurture that our partners need. There is obviously no "one" way to find that balance, but Aloma and Orren's predicament shows us (without telling us) how something that starts out to be good for a relationship can gradually start to erode that same relationship if we are not paying attention.

The story ends on a hopeful note - Aloma and Orren decide to make the commitment to get married and ride out the rough patches together. Even in that rapprochemont, though, the jealousies and hurts and griefs are still oh-so-present. The reader senses that those pieces are a permanent part of the story, and that Orren and Aloma will have to learn to work within and around them. All the Living shares with us the message of life in death, as well as possibility in emptiness.

Reverent Reader


At 5/28/10, 1:01 PM , Blogger Saying Grace said...

I'm glad you enjoyed this book. Just one note: the author is a woman living in Berea Kentucky where she graduated from Berea College. She received a "notable book" mention in the New Yorker for this, her first novel. She is now working on her second novel.

At 5/28/10, 5:24 PM , Anonymous Leslie said...

Thanks for the tip, Roy - I'll edit my post accordingly. I don't know where I got the idea that C.E. Morgan was a man. I'll look forward to her next one!


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