A Shout in the Ru­ins by Kevin Pow­ers

The Guardian - Review - - News - An­drew Mo­tion

Kevin Pow­ers’ mar­vel­lous de­but novel, The Yel­low

Birds , which won the Guardian first book award in 2012, is of­ten de­scribed as be­ing “about the Iraq war”. And so it is, re­ly­ing on Pow­ers’ mem­o­ries of serv­ing there as a ma­chine gun­ner with the US army. But it is equally sig­nif­i­cantly “about” the re­wards and dif­fi­cul­ties of home­com­ing: how sol­ders strug­gle to adapt to the looser struc­tures of civil­ian life, and how they find (or don’t find) a way to ac­com­mo­date hor­rific mem­o­ries of con­flict within land­scapes of peace. Specif­i­cally, in this case, the land­scape of Rich­mond, Vir­ginia, where Pow­ers’ hero lives and where he him­self grew up.

Pow­ers has said that Vir­ginia “has, in a way, a sav­age his­tory of its own, and I was deeply af­fected by that his­tory”. Given his ev­i­dent in­ter­est in man­i­fest­ing the ef­fects of vi­o­lence, the ge­og­ra­phy of his sec­ond novel, A Shout in the Ru­ins, comes as no sur­prise. Six years in the writ­ing, it con­tains two nar­ra­tive threads – one set in Vir­ginia in the 1860s be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter the Amer­i­can civil war, and one in the same re­gion in 1956. It is a book of epic sweep, al­though a sig­nif­i­cant part of its achieve­ment is to cre­ate the sense of a large scale within a tight for­mat: it’s only 272 pages long. Another suc­cess is to han­dle the same themes of con­flict, op­pres­sion and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion as the first book, but to do so in such a strik­ingly dif­fer­ent con­text as to cre­ate a strik­ingly dif­fer­ent ef­fect.

It has to be said, though, that while the the­matic fo­cus is never in doubt, the nar­ra­tive line in the civil war sec­tions is some­times too densely packed. Does Pow­ers – who also writes po­ems that tend to de­pend on glimpses and glances rather than ex­trap­o­lated sto­ries – feel that it’s ba­nal sim­ply to set things fair and square be­fore the reader? Pos­si­bly, and pos­si­bly with good rea­son. But the fact is that sev­eral of his char­ac­ters aren’t given space to es­tab­lish them­selves strongly enough in our mind’s eye, and some el­e­ments of the drama feel blurred or hur­ried.

At the cen­tre of the ac­tion is Rawls, a slave work­ing for Lucy Reid and her hus­band, Bob. By the time we first meet him, shortly be­fore the civil war breaks out, he has al­ready been bar­barously treated: his toes have been “docked” by a pre­vi­ous owner. De­spite this lit­eral hob­bling, and the re­stric­tions of his mo­bil­ity in other re­spects, he is still am­bi­tious to “find some­thing that would not be sub­ject to the strange laws of the bor­der­less world in which he lived”. This drives him to find mod­est ad­vance­ment in his work, and to fall in love with Nurse (so called be­cause she works as a wet nurse). When Nurse is even­tu­ally sold off by her abu­sive mas­ter to an even more tyran­ni­cal lo­cal jailowner, Rawls re­fuses to ac­cept that this is the fate ei­ther of them de­serves, and sets off to find her.

Cut to the 1956 strand of the novel, in which we meet Ge­orge Sel­dom, also in Rich­mond, al­though shortly to board a train to North Carolina, as he med­i­tates on changes in lo­cal cities and their de­mo­graph­ics. Be­cause we’re told that Ge­orge is “ap­prox­i­mately 90 years old” we as­sume he has some link to the char­ac­ters who ap­pear in the ear­lier part of the novel – but at this stage are left to guess what it might be. This, de­spite the fact that Pow­ers’ prose style in this sec­tion is com­par­a­tively straight­for­ward and the nar­ra­tive line com­par­a­tively bare. Pos­si­bly a lit­tle too bare – as though he might be con­scious of con­ges­tion in his other sto­ry­line and here has over­com­pen­sated.

Through the next sev­eral seg­ments of the 19th­cen­tury strand, which al­ter­nates with Ge­orge’s story, we fol­low the rav­ages of the civil war, the tra­vails of Rawls and Nurse and a great deal more be­sides. Mean­while, in the calmer wa­ters of the par­al­lel story, an­cient Ge­orge re­dis­cov­ers places from his past, and with them the pre­vi­ously ob­scure facts about his up­bring­ing and in­her­i­tance.

Pow­ers is at his best when he con­tem­plates scenes of in­hu­man­ity, con­sid­ers ques­tions of self-de­ter­mi­na­tion in a con­text of cri­sis, and weighs the lessons they teach about the need for lov­ing-kind­ness. In the civil war part of this story, these themes are com­pellingly present be­cause they are densely imag­ined and we feel them on our pulses. Al­though the sec­tions deal­ing with Ge­orge are in­ti­mately con­nected with them, and com­pletely honourable in in­ten­tion, we ex­pe­ri­ence them less ur­gently be­cause they are more can­didly ar­tic­u­lated. But while this means A Shout in the Ru­ins doesn’t have uni­form in­ten­sity, it cer­tainly con­firms Pow­ers as a sig­nif­i­cant tal­ent. One who re­minds us:

We are born for­get­ting, and our births and child­hood are soon enough dreams we can’t re­call. It’s a kind­ness na­ture grants us, one of its few, be­cause it lets us be­lieve we are not made whole, that we’ll have some say in the mat­ter, when in fact our end­ing is writ­ten long be­fore our be­gin­ning.

An­drew Mo­tion’s Sil­ver: Re­turn to Trea­sure Is­land is pub­lished by Vin­tage. To buy A Shout in the Ru­ins for £14.44 go to guardian­book­shop.com.

A Shout in the Ru­ins by Kevin Pow­ers, Scep­tre, £16.99

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