Eden, by Olympia Vernon. 272 pages, Grove Press, $23
Maddy Dangerfield is 14. She is black skin and red Mississippi clay and a tube of crimson lipstick. In dirt-poor Pyke County, where a hog slaughtering can attract spectators, Maddy's understanding of birth, life and death is a quilt of rural commonsense, family secrets, old wives' tales and Biblical admonitions.
Eden captures Maddy's season of hormonal hell. She scandalizes her church, and finds herself packed off to nurse an aunt whose life of sin has been cut short by breast cancer. Aunt Pip's flickering ember in the hearth of this family scorches each relative's soul and kindles Maddy's emerging understanding of the earthly battle between the carnal and the spiritual.
First-time novelist Olympia Vernon allows neither Maddy nor the reader to avert their eyes from her family's nakedness, in keeping with the title's reference to the Genesis garden. There's her father's enslavement to addictions, embodied by a hustler named Jesus. There's Aunt Pip's atonement for past sin. There's her mother's public shame. Her hometown's bleakness and bigotry.
As her senses awaken, she discovers that nothing and everything is sacred, and that to grow up Southern, poor and black is to love, work, pray, lust, eat dirt and walk through fire. By the time Maddy has pursued her first crush and hacked off her hair to demonstrate her solidarity with her dying aunt, the Eden of her innocence becomes the past and knowledge the future.
Vernon stokes the emotional intensity of this psychological drama by exploiting both a young girl's vulnerability and her boldness. She makes Maddy's senses crackle. And through Maddy, readers become voyeurs to a series of shocking and surreal encounters with death; by each chapter it becomes increasingly difficult to separate Maddy's nightmares from her reality. Long after she had sorted it out, I was still as numb as if my face had been slapped. Reading Eden is like watching a house burn down -- horrifying yet mesmerizing.
At times, Vernon's great gift of voice is also the novel's weakness: Maddy's brooding and interior conversation can be so idiomatic as to be impregnable. Readers who are not students of the Bible may need to keep one handy, as I did, for unscrambling the potent references and constant allegories underpinning the tale. And oddly, at one point, Vernon launches into an explanation for the device of giving the father's demon the same name as the mother's savior -- Jesus; no explanation necessary. Got it. Can't always tell which one is driving the action, but putting the demon's name in italics tended to help.
These are minor flaws in what is otherwise a profoundly raw and gripping read: Vernon's is a new African-American and Southern voice with sustaining dramatic power that magnifies the human condition. Let's hope she has lots more to say.
Jean Thompson is an associate editor in The Sun's editorial department and a collector of African-American historical papers and vintage photographs, music and art.