Guests on Earth

Written by Lee Smith
Review by Eileen Charbonneau

The narrator of Lee Smith’s (Fair and Tender Ladies, The Last Girls) latest novel is thirteen in 1926, when she is admitted to a mental ward of Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. For the next twelve years she chronicles both her own life and the lives of staff, doctors and fellow inmates, including its most famous: Zelda Fitzgerald.

Vulnerable Evalina Toussaint is the orphaned daughter of an exotic dancer of New Orleans and the dancer’s father: a reality, like many in the book, which becomes clear gradually. Evalina is a musically gifted piano accompanist whose first break from the hospital takes place as she goes off to study. But a liaison with an opera singer ends in tragedy and a return to the haven of Highland. The horrific fire that kills Mrs. Fitzgerald and eight other women locked on the hospital’s top floor provides both the climax and catalyst for a new beginning.

Besides its most famous inmate, Smith’s characters include a damaged Southern belle, a sterilized “moral imbecile,” a shell-shocked veteran of World War I, and a feral groundskeeper. At once surreal and pointed in its detailed world of innovative programs including valuing exercise; diet; and art, occupational, and shock therapy, Guests on Earth brims with people struggling with identity and the line between sanity and madness. Colorful characters come and go and provide roads not traveled by. All are illuminated by deep humanity and the lyrical style and graceful notes of a master Southern storyteller.