#30Authors is an event started by The Book Wheel that connects readers, bloggers, and authors. In it, 30 authors review their favorite recent reads on 30 blogs in 30 days. It takes place annually during the month of September and has been met with incredible support from and success in the literary community. It has also been turned into an anthology, which is currently available on Amazon and all author proceeds go to charity. Previous #30Authors contributors include Celeste Ng, Cynthia Bond, Brian Panowich, and M.O. Walsh. To see this year’s full line-up, visit The Book Wheel or follow along on Twitter @30Authors.
I am so happy to be hosting Ed Tarkington, his novel Only Love Can Break Your Heart is one of my 2016 favorites (and, quite honestly, he references Bob Dylan in a moment, so…).
Here’s his review of MISS JANE, which quickly put Brad Watson on my radar.
For me, a new work of fiction from Brad Watson inspires the kind of urgency and excitement I feel when I hear that one of my favorite bands is coming to town for the first time in years. Watson’s debut story collection, LAST DAYS OF THE DOG MEN (1997), redefined for me what was possible in writing about Southern experience. His debut novel, THE HEAVEN OF MERCURY(2002), is what you might get if you bred ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE with WISE BLOOD and GERONIMO REX. His most recent collection, ALIENS IN THE PRIME OF THEIR LIVES (2010), felt like the literary equivalent of Dylan going electric. So you can imagine how I felt when I procured an advance reader’s copy of MISS JANE, which I read straight through in two sittings and promptly read again, full of gratitude and admiration.
MISS JANE is a deeply personal fiction, inspired by Watson’s great-aunt Mary Ellis “Jane” Clay, who suffered a rare genital birth defect which left her both incontinent and unable to have children. In a fine essay posted at his website, Watson explains how he became inspired to write about his great-aunt and the process he undertook to write about her experience honestly and with authority. The result of his efforts is a nuanced, emotionally charged account of how an extraordinary young woman beset at birth by tragedy fashions a rich and memorable life despite enormously adverse circumstances—most significantly, being denied the chance to experience romantic love and motherhood.
At the center of the story, of course, is young Jane Chisholm: her journey into awareness of her own difference, her heartbreaking process of coming to terms with it, and her brave determination to live hopefully and openly. Even without her condition, Jane faces a hard lot in life. Hers is a poor farming family in Depression-era rural Mississippi. Her mother is cold and distant; her father beset with a weakness for the bootleg whiskey he makes to supplement the family income. Jane’s nurturing comes through her love of nature and her friendship with Dr. Eldred Thompson, who sees in young Jane evidence of something approaching grace. “In my opinion you live on a higher moral ground,” Dr. Thompson tells Jane. “I mean to say you are a good person.”
In MISS JANE, Brad Watson’s prose has evolved from his early style, in which the word-drunk influence of Faulkner and Barry Hannah loom large, toward a sparer voice free of adornment. He seems determined to pull back all artifice and let Jane live and breathe on the page. His depiction of hardscrabble life in rural Mississippi is deeply compassionate, transcending stereotype. Through Eldred Thompson, Watson offers fascinating insights into early twentieth century medical research as well as an endearing portrait of the all but extinct archetype of the country doctor.
MISS JANE will break your heart, but in the best possible way. It is a luminous, haunting tale that nevertheless inspires more hope than despair. Best of all, it arouses the kind of empathy we all so desperately need to nurture and enlarge our own humanity, which seems to me the greatest gift a work of fiction can give us. None of us would wish to bear Miss Jane’s burdens, but we can all learn from her limitless courage and the grace she exhibits over the course of this deeply moving novel by a writer I am convinced will endure in posterity as among the finest of his generation.
ABOUT ED TARKINGTON
Ed Tarkington’s debut novel ONLY LOVE CAN BREAK YOUR HEART was a ABA Indies Introduce selection (top 10 debuts of the publishing season), an Indie Next pick, a Book of the Month Club Main Selection, a Southern Independent Booksellers Association bestseller, and was recently long-listed for the Crook’s Corner Book Prize. A regular contributor to Chapter16.org, his articles, essays, and stories have appeared in a variety of publications including the Nashville Scene, Memphis Commercial Appeal, Knoxville News-Sentinel, and Lit Hub. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee.