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Sunday Telegraph: "Southwood has turned a tragedy into serious fiction which transcends the time in which it is set."

Date: Apr 7 2013

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Kate Southwood’s debut is a thoughtful novel about loyalty and survival. It’s about what happens to us, as individuals and as a community, when we lose our way, and it’s about how to keep going when we are bereft. And although it is set in 1925, when a tornado hits the small American town of Marah, it is a story that in its almost painful simplicity could be a parable for our uncertain economic times.


Once the twister has flattened the town it emerges that the only family to escape completely unscathed – their house intact, their children safe, their lumber business in constant, if awkward, demand building more than 200 coffins – is that of Paul Graves, his mother Lavinia, his wife Mae and their three children. As the hours of mangled flesh and ruined structures stretch into weeks of tented villages and rations, and months of rebuilding projects, the town, in its anger and envy, turns on the Graveses, making them scapegoats for all that has been destroyed.


Southwood’s prose is measured, dignified – “the night had turned heartbreakingly clear, and when there was nothing more he could do at the school, he’d walked home in the moonlight” – and form in keeping with content, as the townsfolk pick over their ruined lives. It is a novel reminiscent of the restrained works by Susan Hill and Sarah Hall, with its unflinching psychological observation.Although the Graveses’ relationships are harmonious, all too soon a blatant snub here, a name-calling there starts to wear the family down and they retreat, from the town and from each other. Mae’s depression is particularly well drawn.


Although the town’s various pastors struggle to know how to help or heal their respective flocks, Paul eventually learns that we have to lose much to rise again. This and other biblical references create a persistent undertow of profound questions about the human capacity to suffer. That the final tragedy turns on a much delayed letter when there are telephones in town only underscores a certain human confusion in the face of pain.


Whether intended as a parable or not, Southwood has turned a tragedy into serious fiction which transcends the time in which it is set and which feels universal. 

—Lucy Beresford

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