books, Reading, Women Writers

“Over the Plain Houses” by Julia Franks

Deep in Appalachian North Carolina, bound by the chains of the Great Depression, Irenie 9781938235214_custom-2453c618929a2cc321a13f74378abc416310ec93-s400-c85Lambey is a paradox of a woman. Fiercely independent and wildly strong, she finds herself completely tamed by her husband and her community, voiceless and afraid and aching to be free.

Though she may be undereducated, Irenie is full of native intelligence and insight. She sees the incongruity between her core sense of self and the woman she has become, observing “little girls still young enough to blurt the truth without questioning the way the world would receive it. (When, Irenie wondered, had she and her sister and the rest of them lost that freedom? Was it something their parents had taken away, or a thing they had given over of their own accord?)”

Irenie is a housewife, bound to the land, to her desolate house, and to her overbearing husband.

“It was strange. She’d married him in part because he’d seen the world, and she’d thought a life with him would open her up too. But somehow the opposite had happened. They’d set up housekeeping so close to home that the land was part of her great grandfather’s original parcel, and to this day she hadn’t figured out how the wide place that had been her growing up had shrunk so tight that she found herself lonely in it.

Irenie’s husband Brodis is a lumber man turned preacher, a man whose fearsome faith keeps his family on tenterhooks. Brodis demands loyalty and utter obedience from his wife and son, commanding their every move, brooking no dissent, and declaring that they are his to possess. Ever suspicious, Brodis becomes convinced that his wife is communing with the devil. In his fevered delusion, he becomes obsessed with hunting down and exorcising the devil from his wife, all the while becoming himself more demon than any he imagined.

Julia Franks’ debut novel shows great promise, with stark, “plain-spoken” language and pulse-quickening plot. The protagonist is a woman who demands empathy and commands respect, and her development as a character is well turned. The novel on the whole, however, was a bit too quiet for my liking. Though the characters and plot twists were innovative and interesting, I found myself drifting on occasion and sometimes slogging through the mud of the story in a way that was tiring and off-putting. I wanted something intangible – a bit more volume, another degree of color. In a way, the cover art captured perfectly the book’s tone – adjust the contrast and you may well have a thing of beauty.


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