A prominent family damaged by scandal reckons with their sordid past in this emotional drama set during World War I.
The Lyle family, once the most influential family in Furnass, Pennsylvania, own Keystone Steam Works, an internationally renowned company that predates the Civil War. Not only have a series of disgraces sullied their name, they’ve also incurred multiple financial setbacks—a predicament the patriarch of the family, Malcolm Hayes, hopes to rectify. Representatives of the U.S. government have asked Hayes to develop a new engine for tanks that will eventually be deployed against Germany—the year is 1916—a contract that could be their “financial salvation.” Meanwhile, Malcolm’s son, Gus, assumes the “grave responsibility” of discovering who impregnated his half sister, Mary Lydia, who doesn’t seem to have any paramours. Malcolm suspects the culprit might be her twin brother, John Lincoln, who rushes off to join the war as soon as he learns of her pregnancy. Snodgrass’ gratuitously convoluted tale grows outlandishly soap-operatic: While conducting his investigation, Gus hears the rumor—implausibly for the first time—that his grandfather Colin conspired with the Confederacy during the Civil War, possibly out of deference to the “inborn sympathies” of his grandmother Libby, a Southerner. Moreover, Libby cheated on Colin, both with her doctor, Gene McArtle, in order to procure drugs, and Judson Walker, a Confederate soldier with whom she fell deeply in love. It’s a testament to the author’s meticulousness that these entangled details are not only conveyed intelligibly, but ultimately congeal into a coherent tale that can be both astute and affecting.
For those familiar with Snodgrass’ body of work, the abiding obsession with fictional Furnass is no surprise, and he continues to render it—across different epochs—with extraordinary sensitivity. This novel, like his others, is a literary homage to the kind of locale that forges generations. Also, the author has a keen eye for the salacious dysfunctions of family and the ways loyalty and love can easily morph into transgression. The plot is both melodramatic and complex—Snodgrass insists on layer upon layer of overwrought twists, an approach that weighs down the story and, ultimately, tires the reader. Did Malcolm Hayes kill his wife? In another fictional circumstance, one less packed with tawdry subplots, this would be a more tantalizing possibility. Also, Snodgrass resorts to an exhausting literary device—endless pages of italicized narration communicated in a florid stream-of-consciousness style that pulls readers out of the story rather than inviting them in further: “The woman standing there looking at Perpetual as if to ask her something, but Perpetual says to her as she does each evening, You go on now, Mrs. Lydia, you go to your rest, there’s nothing you can do for these folks now, Perpetual she be here to help, and the woman of luminous fibers nods and turns and begins to dim, fading into the farther reaches of the house, and Perpetual looks around once more to make sure all is well.” These interludes, or interruptions, appear often and seem to drag on interminably.
A thoughtful story undermined by long-winded detours.