Reviewed by Victoria Best
What do they do to writers down in Mississippi? Is there a school, I wonder, where prospective writers go in order to be marinaded in a bath of queasily rich language and taught to tell tales by the widest digressions possible? And then in order to graduate, are those same authors ‘finished’ with a thick veneer of charm and whimsy so that what might seem like flaws in other storytellers become delightful parts of the narrative journey? In the charming, unpredictable and utterly engrossing Flying Shoes, a perfect example of Mississippi artistry, it’s certainly better to travel than to arrive.
Mary Byrd Thornton, ‘M’Byrd’ or ‘Mudbird’ to her friends and lovers, receives a call at the start of the story which she had both hoped for and feared. Way back in her past, her 9-year-old stepbrother, Stevie, was brutally murdered and the subsequent investigation botched. Now a journalist seems to be on the trail of the culprit and the police are trying to step in and cordon off the family first. The detective who rings Mary Byrd tells her that fresh evidence has come to light and finally this old, cold case may end in some closure – so long as she travels through an impending ice storm to hear what he has to say. Mary Byrd can’t decide whether the promised closure is worth the pain of exhuming her feelings all over again.
Even now, when she did have to think about it, was reminded of it, her part in it wasn’t unlike the crick in her shoulder, that small but naggy pain in her left wing-bone . . . . A pinched nerve that stayed pinched.
Yet we readers can see that closure is desperately needed. Mary Byrd is a charming mess, a woman who barely keeps her head above domestic water, with a fond but disengaged husband who runs an art gallery and two young children who run rings around her. Even the help, Evagreen, scorns her for not having the kind of snappish authority she thinks white women ought to possess. Instead, Mary Byrd clings to her comforting chaos, including the collection of miniature knick-knacks that get her the reputation of being a ‘quaint-hound’, her meaningless lovers who exert a perilous fascination, and her ever-diminishing collection of prescription pills. She is determined to be – or at least to look – strong, whilst bemusedly aware that she has to make strange and complex detours around everyday living to settle her anxiety. No flying, for instance.The trip she is forced to make to her family in Richmond, Virginia to hear the new evidence is eventually undertaken in an articulated lorry containing a cargo of frozen chicken parts and driven by a man who seriously offers to kill her brother’s murderer. Don’t ask me how she ends up there – it’s a long story.
For the point of this novel isn’t so much the death of her young sibling as the mess we create in one another’s lives and have to find a way to live with. The story radiates out around Mary Byrd, giving us a panoramic view of a woman who doesn’t want to see too clearly inside herself or anyone else, while becoming caught up nevertheless in the painful and potentially dangerous business of loving others. There’s a colourful cast of characters here, including M’Byrd’s best friend, Mann, a neat little mannequin whose homosexuality still stigmatises him in some unredeemed minds of the South; Jack Ernest, an ageing playboy who ‘had clowned around with death every day of his crazy life’ and who deals drugs for her in the hope of sexual favours; and Tolliver ‘Teever’ Barr, an ex-Vietnam vet who lives homeless and works for Mary sometimes as a general handyman. The seeming digressions into the lives of these characters are as much part of the flow of the story as the murder of Stevie, the wellspring from which all these tributaries ultimately emerge:
One thing Mary Byrd was grateful for: she’d learned early that this is the way the world works, randomly and chaotically, with billions and trillions of stories overlapping and colliding and entangling so that one could never feel that one’s own story was one’s own. Everything that happened was like a stone thrown into a pond, rippling out, or an earthquake causing distant tsunamis. There was no black or white, yours and mine, almost no good or bad.
And yet this last point – how to distinguish between good and bad in such complex networks of cause and effect – is a sticky paradox, a Gorgon’s knot. Mary Byrd does travel back to the past and find out what happened to her brother, and the horrifying knowledge does bring with it unexpected calm and lightness. But after the years of suppressed suffering, she feels convinced that an antidote is needed ‘to too much wholesomeness and small-town charm and polite society. Their dark sides were important’. And yet how to reconcile the inner need for transgression with an experience of the outer world as ravaged by violence, as a place ‘where people did unspeakable things to each other, for reasons that must be a part of whatever it is that makes humans human, but not necessarily humane.’ Mary Byrd has sympathy she can’t shake for the whole stinking lot of it, but no answers.
This novel is based on the real-life unsolved murder of the author’s stepbrother, and it is fascinating to see what she does with it. This isn’t a thriller or a piece of crime fiction at all and it’s extremely important to let go of that expectation. It’s a novel about living with the pain of being around humans who are not always humane, and all the more profound and intriguing for it.
Victoria is one of the Shiny New Books Editors.
Lisa Howorth, Flying Shoes (Bloomsbury Circus, August 2014) 978-1408844977, 336 pages, hardback.