The Art of the Great Southern Novel
From beloved novelist Tom Franklin and acclaimed poet Beth Ann Fennelly comes an extraordinary new novel that carries Mississippi’s rich history in its heart and proves there is no work greater than the Southern novel.
Review by Shana Raley-Lusk
Arts & Culture | Books | December 2013
For lovers of Southern literature, Tom Franklin is truly one of the greats. In his most recent novel, The Tilted World, he and award-winning poet Beth Ann Fennelly combine their talents to create a powerful work of fiction that will certainly transport readers to a different time and place. Set in 1927 Mississippi, the tale is spun against the backdrop of the historic Mississippi River flooding. This provides the perfect setting for a prohibition-era tale of moonshine, bootleggers and revenuers whose lives all become intertwined in the most unexpected of ways.As months of rain and rising waters threaten everything around the great Mississippi, readers meet Dixie Clay Holliver and her husband, Jesse. From the beginning, it is quite obvious that their relationship has devolved into one more of business than true love. The couple makes their money from illegal moonshining, though their marriage has come apart at the seams. The first scene finds Jesse being interrogated by revenuers and Dixie rushing to his aid. It is immediately clear that she is a strong woman and a born fighter.Soon, we meet Ted Ingersoll and his partner, Ham Johnson, who have come to the small Mississippi town of Hobnob to investigate the recent disappearance of two fellow revenuers. As the lives and paths of the revenuers intersect with those of the bootleggers, things really begin to get interesting. In the course of events, the two agents discover an abandoned infant in the midst of the chaos. Ted is determined to find a proper home and mother for the baby and this quest leads him straight to Dixie. The other part of her life as a bootlegger, however, remains a secret. Dixie knows that there is no way that she can reveal her true self to Ingersoll without risking it all.Written with the skill of a natural novelist and the grace of a gifted poet, The Tilted World is raw, chaotic and adventurous. At the same time, it has many moments of tenderness and vivid flashes of insight about human emotion and relationships. The horror and devastation of the flood is made real in the pages of the book. The suffering left by a natural disaster on this scale comes to life here and brings readers the opportunity for reflection and contemplation about the fragility of life itself.The book showcases juxtaposition in more than one way. Of course, there is the immediate contrast of the authors’ styles and voices within these pages. Tom Franklin, who has become one of the primary voices in the literature of the American South, writes in the straightforward and adept style that readers may remember from his earlier works. He is a true storyteller with a gift for weaving a believable and entrancing story. Then, there is Beth Ann Fennelly’s softer, more sentimental style, which lends itself nicely to some of the book’s characters. The combination of these two voices adds an intriguing sense of depth to the book, bringing it to life and allowing it to appeal to a broad audience. This aspect also adds to the personality differences in the individual characters.In addition to that juxtaposition, the book is also, in some ways, a contradiction in genres. While it is a wild and daring thriller about crime and bootlegging at its very heart, it is also a story of romance, as well as motherly love. The book clearly reaches in both directions to create an intricately woven tale that seeks to explore the human experience on several different levels.The Tilted World is, above all, a story about human hope and fear in the face of unbelievable struggle and hardship. Rich with descriptions that bring the past to life, along with skillfully crafted characters that allow us to explore our own experiences in a world that we cannot control, this book is an instant classic in the realm of Southern literature. Wild and thrilling, beautiful and soft, The Tilted World has a tale to tell and does so with the heart of the Southern voice at its forefront.