Mudbound review

This is a review I wrote for NAIBA.  It took an insane amount of time, because book reviews are nearly impossible for me.  It was a good exercise in humility, though, because I like to complain about how nonsensical the NYT Book Review can be; reviews seem to devolve in record time to recollections of the review writer that are barely related to the subject at hand, or an editorial for the opposite position of the book under review, or just flat-out rambling.  But having to write a longer book review–as opposed to the 2-3 sentence ones that I do here, or brief staff picks–gives me more respect for how hard it is.  (Although, on the other hand, they are the paper of record, whereas I am just a lowly bookseller, so maybe I shouldn’t cut them any slack.)

Anyway, here is the review.

Mudbound, Hillary Jordan (Algonquin, March 2008)

It’s hard to pick a word that captures Mudbound, but I think the word that
comes closest is heft. Everything about the novel is hefty. The issues:
violent racism, incest, concentration camps. The setting: weather-ravaged
Mississippi stewing in the first signs of racial revolt. But it’s not
heavy, it’s hefty-just enough weight to be aware of it, but not so much
that you, or for that matter Jordan, can’t carry it until the end.

Perhaps the thing I most savored about Mudbound was the evocative
voices–not just of the individual characters, but also the quiet presence
of the author behind them, weaving them together. Each chapter is in a
different character’s voice, with six in all. Even as the action picks
up, with the viewpoints switching more and more quickly, the voices are so
consistent that I felt I could reach out and touch them. As Henry wanted
a farm, as Laura fell in love with Jamie, as Ronsel remembered Europe, I
did too. Most interestingly, you don’t just see the characters as they
see themselves, but also as all the other characters do, which gives them
a nice dimensionality. What Laura thinks she’s hiding–and I thought she
was hiding too–is plain as day to Florence and Henry. This changed her,
over the course of a few chapters, from a shrewd adultress to a foolish
girl to a cruel wife, until in my mind she settled somewhere amongst all
of those.

I picked up the book in the first place because Barbara Kingsolver blurbed
it, as the book won her 2006 Bellwether Prize, which she founded to
recognize “literature of social responsibility.” This is actually a great
phrase to describe Mudbound. Where some “socially responsible literature”
is self-conscious, and almost timid, Mudbound is bold. And bold is what
is needed to confront the nasty truth of racism and its consequences in
1940s Mississippi. In Mudbound, Jordan creates a a fictional world that
is somehow more real than nonfiction could have been, with the characters
settling into your brain and reminding you of their world and its
problems. Jordan’s book is a masterpiece of social responsibility not just
because of its subject matter, but also because it is so well-written that
the subject matter gets into your head and stays there.

As with most accomplished novels, it is very hard to sum up precisely why
Mudbound is so good. If you love literary fiction, or social
responsibility, or other such things, then of course you will love
Mudbound, because you are the primary audience. But even if you have a
slight distaste for literary fiction, as I do, you will love it too. It’s
a treat to read a book as masterfully crafted as this, but the
craftsmanship is just gravy compared to the meaty and satisfying character
development and story.

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