A Review of Mesha Maren’s “Sugar Run”
Rebuilding a Life
The genre of American Southern Gothic fiction is probably best described as belonging to men. Its tales of immense poverty and lives ruined by drink and drugs are seemingly written in a river of testosterone. That’s why Mesha Maren’s debut novel Sugar Run is so mesmerizing. Not only is it written from a female’s point of view, but it has a duo of lesbian relationships at its heart. That said, it is a flawed first novel — the plot and point of view can be confusing and disjointed, flipping back and forth between characters. This means that the novel has you having to really pay close attention to it. Still, there are some rewards as the narrative moves at a jittery speed in its back half.
The story concerns a young woman who, at 18 years old and in the late 1980s, is sentenced to life in prison for an unspeakable crime committed when she and her older gay lover were on a bit of a spree knocking over poker games in Mexico and the southern United States for money, if not for kicks. Flash forward 20 years, and Jodi, the woman, has been released from prison. She makes her way down to Georgia to make amends with her lover’s brother, and meets up with a woman named Miranda who is the wife of a down-on-his-luck country singer with three kids in tow. Jodi hooks up with her and takes all of these people, kids included but save for the singer, up to her old home in West Virginia. There, she finds that things haven’t changed and staying out of a life of crime to be hard when the people and places are stacked against you.
A lot of the tension of the novel hinges on the “will she?” or “won’t she?” aspects of whether or not Jodi will screw up and throw what she’s gained — namely, her freedom — all away quickly. While the novel tries to point out that it’s nearly impossible to renounce your past with a Class B felony conviction on your record — meaning that it’s impossible to find any jobs, and make your way back into society — Jodi basically gets caught up in things not of her making. This is a bit frustrating, because it makes it all seem as though Jodi is just a vessel to be toyed with, and she holds zero responsibility for the things that are happening to her. It also is apparent that she doesn’t have much of a game plan for getting out of jail and staying clean.
However, where the novel does work is charting how the landscape of the American South has changed over the years, from being the moonshine territory of books such as Gods of Howl Mountain, to being a bit of a mecca for hard drugs, including crystal meth. It has also become an area that has moved on from less invasive coal mining practices to becoming fracking factories that are destroying the land. Setting this novel more or less in the present day — well, to be accurate, 2007, which isn’t quite so far away ago — has done a great service to the themes of the book. Basically, the more that things change, the more they stay the same — meaning, that people just can’t escape the life of the area, that bigger things or systemic injustices are in motion to be working against you. As someone who grew up in a small town, this is highly relatable to me.
However, as mentioned earlier, this is a novel that is confusing as heck to read. Characters are brought up and you have to basically figure out how they fit into the larger narrative of the piece, sometimes not doing so until most of the volume’s pages have flipped past you in the rear-view mirror. What’s more, the narrative shifts between Jodi’s point of view and Miranda’s — usually during the same scene — so, again, you have to be really keeping your eyes glued to the page to make sure you’re not missing the transitions. That all said and done, it’s clear that author Mesha Maren is gifted. She has a poetic lilt to her language (plus she quotes Tennyson at length at one point), so the writing is careful and considered, at least, save for the narrative jumps — which are probably intended to keep the reader on edge and always guessing. Those jumps don’t really work too well, but that is one of the few failings of the book.
The action does get ramped up a notch or two in the last half of Sugar Run, which more than makes up for a bit of a slow and languid first half. The ending is a bit inconclusive — we’re not entirely sure what’s going to happen to at least one of the main characters, but, again, this is probably intentional to show that nothing is for certain for them. All in all, Sugar Run is a not wholly satisfying read, but it is a bit interesting. I read a good chunk of it over one or two sittings, so it does have a fire to it and it is propulsive. While I wish that it was a little friendlier to the casual reader and didn’t try to go over its head with narrative fireworks, Sugar Run is a book that is better than its early January release date would have you believe. (That time period being a dumping ground for books publishers generally don’t know what to do with.) It’s a slightly winning volume about all the things a person could lose — so those looking for a book about ex-convicts that has conviction could do no wrong by spending time within the covers of this tome.
Mesha Maren’s Sugar Run was published by Algonquin Books on January 8, 2019.
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