Jim Grimsley's Reviews > Prisons

Prisons by Mary Lee Settle
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really liked it

This was a good companion read to Morrison's A Mercy, from the same era of history, on the opposite side of the ocean, and with a different form of narrative. The voice of John Church tells the story, moving back and forth in time from childhood to his days in the parliamentarian army during the English civil war. Settle's writing is sure-handed and exact, and shares with Morrison the economy of its approach. The story is not drowned in historical detail but rather shapes itself precisely as if it were the memory of Church, sometimes focused on moments that expand into a tactile tapestry and other times pulling back to look at passages of time, avoiding the monotony of the army experience, for instance, when, as he says, most of the service was waiting and next-most was marching. But the book is not one in which a reader loses himself to a sense of the other world; the reading here is colder than that, though the story itself is very deeply felt. My sense of the other characters in the book was in general that they were objects that the writer picked up and put down; useful but not rich. The character of John's aunt, who is also the mother of his illegitimate child, and of Thankful Perkins, his best friend, were the most complex of the portraits. But this is not psychological fiction. This is something equally rich but less engaging to the emotions. The background is full of vivid still-life depictions of characters seen for a moment, then gone. There is a satisfying and somewhat sardonic motif of a woman who is cooking a goose at the same time that she betrays John and Thankful from their hiding place; they eat the cooked goose when they are imprisoned; and later their own goose is cooked when they are shot as traitors by Cromwell. Settle looks on this novel as an examination of the origins of American ideas of freedom, liberty, and conscience, and it is satisfying as that. An eerie counterpoint to the week before the inauguration of Joe Biden. The voice of the novel is spiced with archaisms, but not overly so; the dialog made me giggle a bit, but it's superior to that in her book O Beulah Land, which I am reading now. She is a really distinctive and powerful writer who knows her business.

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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
January 16, 2021 – Shelved

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