“The Past Is Never.” By Tiffany Quay Tyson. Skyhorse Publishing, $24.95.
Editor’s Note: Tiffany Quay Tyson will read and sign copies of “The Past Is Never” at 5 p.m., Monday, March 19, at Off Square Books.
“History,” James Joyce wrote, “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” “The Past Is Never,” a tart, searching novel by Mississippi native Tiffany Quay Tyson, takes its title and epigraph from William Faulkner, but Joyce’s comment might fit the book more aptly.
Tyson’s book is about a family figuring out how they relate to each other (in every sense of the term) and their struggles to break free of a curse. The setting is the Mississippi Delta, in a town called White Forest. The main strand of the narrative runs forward from August 1976. Another strand starts during the Depression, while a third unspools from the early 1920’s. The point of view sometimes shifts during chapters, as slightly different typefaces tell the storylines apart.
At the book’s center is a haunted pool, water that wells up at the bottom of a quarry. The pit was dug by slaves, and around it the author lays on, perhaps too zealously, a hellish history. Houses burn. Slaves rebel. There are rapes, Klan murders, wasting illnesses, and suicides. Handsome treacherous Nazis, prisoners of war, stalk across one chapter. Slavery leaves scars that recur as birthmarks in succeeding generations. There are gruesome home births and countless white-witchery abortions (“Let me make you some of my womb-clearing tea”).
The pool is a place where a child could vanish. This is six-year-old Pansy, who goes missing in the first chapter.
The character who opens and closes the novel is Bert (short for Roberta), Pansy’s older sister. When Bert is the narrator, the book brightens, and the pace picks up. She is the one who explains her father’s work as a counterfeiter and describes the shambles of Uncle Chester’s double-wide trailer. Tyson gives her the book’s best lines. “Men sit side by side on bar stools and stand shoulder to shoulder when they fish because it makes the lies flow easier,” Bert observes. “Women are different … Women like to look you in the eye when they lie to you.”
Bert and her brother Willet are not Scout and Jem—she is a tight-lipped midwife’s apprentice, he is a quick-witted young man who works construction—but they live and think as closely as Scout and Jem. And Bert knows her brother thoroughly: “The clerk we’d met at the grocery store on our first morning walked in wearing a turquoise tube top and a pair of tight white jeans. Her tanned shoulders sparkled with some sort of glitter and she’d rimmed her eyes with blue shadow … Willet liked her, I could tell. He had a weak spot for overdone women.”
In the final chapters, Bert and Willet follow their missing father’s trail to Florida, to Chokoloskee Island on the edge of the Everglades. Their father may be there; Pansy may be there, too. On that margin of new country and unfamiliar ocean, Bert finds she can leave behind the haunted quarry and acknowledge that she may have imagined its monsters.
Bert can break free of history by submerging herself in family—understanding that love may create bonds that blood cannot. She tells Willet’s young daughter: “You were born from cotton slaves and plantation owners, from preachers and kitchen help, from healers and murderers, from liars and truth-tellers, from criminals and lawmakers, from bigots and from the oppressed, from monsters and saints. You were born from water and from earth and from blood.”
Crucially, Tyson intimates, such histories do not overshadow the present. None of that past need be dreaded or shunned or wrestled with eternally. “Someday you may feel them watching you,” she counsels, “those creatures crouched behind the trees … But I tell you they aren’t beasts or ghosts … Those eyes you feel watching you are the eyes of your family. They mean you no harm.”
Tyson, who lives and writes in Denver, grew up in Jackson and has lived in the Delta. “The Past Is Never” is Southern fiction. And it reads like a new kind of Southern fiction.
Allen Boyer is HottyToddy.com’s Book Editor and the author of “Rocky Boyer’s War: An Unvarnished History of the Air Blitz That Won the War in the Southwest Pacific.”