He knew to fear a man who went hatless of his own volition.
There is no pleasure quite like reading a novel so thoroughly immersive that each time you pick it up, you forget what you were doing before, or what exactly you were headed toward. Or if you remember, you no longer care, because the world within the pages is so rich, so detailed, so particular in sense and dialogue and cadence that you just want to linger there.
If Amazon sold this cover in tablecloth format, I would buy it. It’s that beautiful. But I would never let anyone eat on it.
That, for me, was Taylor brown’s debut novel, Fallen Land. It’s heavily resonant of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, and with the occasional shocking (but less erratic) violence of Cormack McCarthy. Yet it has the updated feel of having been penned by a younger writer, someone more open to the ways we might plumb history in order to reflect not just the savagery of the past but what is soulful, tender, worth keeping. It never bends toward the occasional soft-focus romance of Cold Mountain but doesn’t quite blaze off the deep end like McCarthy either. Fallen Land is its own book: lyrical, historical, devastating, humane.
The novel opens with young Irish immigrant Callum, who’s joined up as a scout for a dwindling group of Confederate Rangers led by a fierce, opportunistic Colonel. The Rangers are “like men elected to sainthood. Faces skull-gone, mouths hidden in the gnarled bush of their beards, showing only their teeth.”
They plunder and bounty hunt at the Colonel’s will, staving off their own starvation as the Civil War draws to a close and Sherman begins his March to the Sea. Within the very first pages of the novel, a plunder on a meager farmhouse leads the men to discover young Ava, her family entirely lost to the war, barely surviving alone in an empty house.
She spun on bare feet, kitchen knife clutched to chest, face silly-hard with courage, fear.
“Which side?” she asked him.
“Don’t matter which.”
Callum connects with her instantly, senses the danger she’s in. (Ava: “I’ll take my chances.” Callum: “They ain’t good.”) He saves her from rape, though he suffers a head wound in the process and ends up killing the man with ill intentions toward Ava.
But Callum’s chivalrous impulse can only go so far, and later, while he is still unconscious from his injury, she is raped by the Colonel himself.
Callum learns of this as he recovers (awakening in a patchwork coat Ava has sewn for him, with a big pocket stitched in for his gun–simple thoughtfulness, or maybe she’s suggesting something). So he steals the Colonel’s horse and leaves the group in disgust, going back to help her. When the Colonel is murdered by a trio of outlaws, his gang assumes Callum did it, and they pursue him and Ava–who is now convinced that she’s pregnant with the Colonel’s baby, she and Callum both resigned to the fact– as they try to reach Callum’s distant relatives in Georgia.
The Colonel’s old gang isn’t far off for a second as Callum and Ava make their attempt at an escape, and now the group is led by the fearsome Clayburn, the Colonel’s slave-hungter brother. Other marauders roam the Blue Ridge, too, and their desperation makes them dangerous. This all makes for good and easy reading as you wait to see if the likable young folks, Callum and Ava, can outwit and outride their pursuers as they pick their way across a South ruined by war.
Callum and Ava’s growing relationship is a pleasure to read, and their banter is witty and tender by turns. Riveting too is the cast of characters they meet across the scorched landscape, survivors and hangers-on who ring Homeric in scope. But there’s too much going against Callum and Ava, and they are smart enough to know it. When a fortune-teller reveals that “one of you is going to die,” they are heartbroken; you will be too. If the two of them are going to succeed, they’ll have to overcome even the obstacle of fate to get to Georgia, safety, and peace.
Brown looks good for being 132 years old.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll be completely absorbed in this novel; you’ll get downright spoiled, and you won’t want to leave. You’ll want to keep seeing the fog drift through gulleys and hollers, hearing hoofbeats and the crack of a rifle ominous enough to get your heart pounding; smelling the burning campfires, the gunpowder, the faroff, terrifying scorch of Atlanta under General Sherman’s March to the Sea.You want good, old-fashioned, edge-of-your-seat storytelling? Here you go.
Brown, Taylor. Fallen Land: A Novel. St. Martin’s, 2016.
Buy Fallen Land here
Visit Taylor Brown’s web site
P.S! Today is the pub day for Fallen Land — January 12, 2016. It’s a big day for me ’cause it’s also my pub day! My novel The Longest Night hits bookstores today – Barnes & Noble, your local indie, wherever books are sold.