Amy Greene’s Bloodroot seems almost destined to become one of those warm, wise novels that turns into a word-of-mouth sensation that moms try to push on their adult kids at Christmas. It has the folksy use of language, the homey sense of the culture of the South, and the occasionally dark plotting that stares—but never too deeply—into the blackest heart of man. And Greene’s novel is undeniably appealing, in the way its weird swirl of Southern Gothic and bleak domestic drama keeps the pages turning. But the overall impression the novel leaves is lacking. Greene is apparently unable to truly confront some of the novel’s darker moments, and is more interested in Appalachia as a sort of mystical Shangri-la.
Told in six different voices that all circle in slowly diminishing spirals around the life of one Myra Lamb Odom, Bloodroot aims for Flannery O’Connor and mostly comes up short. O’Connor’s stories used archetypes and stereotypical characters freely, but she was always aiming for something mythic, and she frequently hit that target. Greene uses many of these same archetypes, but because her story is always more prosaic, always more concerned with the day-to-day struggle of living dirt-poor, the use of thin characters ends up feeling cheap.
Greene’s good characters are mostly pure-hearted saints, and if they stray from their chosen path, it’s for good reason, or to teach them a lesson. The bad characters are all almost unrelentingly evil, keeping the good characters down or (literally) locking them beneath a house. The natural world is full of earthy folk wisdom that’s always right, while the city is a place for skulking monsters who never let the heroes rest.
At some points in Bloodroot, Greene heaps abuse on her characters not because the story has been building in that direction, so much as because she’s trying to make some sort of point about the pernicious nature of poverty, and how it drives people to extreme acts, even against those they love. It’d be nice if this all added up to a tapestry of misery, but it never does, at least not one beyond the most stereotypical portrait.
And yet something about Bloodroot remains compelling, even as it’s easy to count off its faults. Greene’s plotting is meandering, but it all comes together, and the epilogue—set 20 years after the final moments of the novel’s main plot—figures out a way to redeem some of the novel’s less savory characters without subtracting its Gothic milieu. Furthermore, the six voices Greene conjures are all sufficiently distinct and compelling to create a vivid sense of the setting.
That’s ultimately the best reason to recommend Bloodroot, and the reason it succeeds in spite of its active attempts to to trip itself up. Greene has a vivid sense of her mountain and its surrounding communities, to the point that some of the best plot payoffs are entirely driven by the setting itself. And that sense of a natural wonderland slowly coming unhinged gives the book what soul it has, a rich sense of a world that needs to be redeemed as much as anyone who lives in it.