In West Mills
Dialogue and easy realism are the strongest points of this novel tracking the life of Azalea “Knot” Centre from her young womanhood in pre-war North Carolina through the late 1980s.
Knot is the attractive, well-educated daughter of a respected dentist. She left her hometown several years earlier to take up a job as a schoolteacher in the small former plantation village of West Mills. The novel opens with the latest angry departure of Knot’s man, Pratt, perhaps this time for good. Her neighbors Otis Lee and Pep, though not much older, serve as Knot’s de facto parents and a constant reminder to curb her drinking and promiscuity if she wishes to have a hope of a “respectable” life.
The title and dustcover promise a web of small-town secrets, perhaps a “Spoon River Anthology” focused on the African American southern community experience. While the settings are authentic, and the subplots and side characters engaging—town gossip ranges from well-intended concern to malice, and characters such as Knot’s gay bartender friend add a welcome, if somewhat marginal, LGBTQ dimension—the book holds a tight perspective upon Knot herself, with the rest serving more as a backdrop.
If at times admirable in its self-assurance, Knot’s life journey is imbued with a tragic quality. The use of dialect rings true, if marked by occasional anachronisms, and the author does a masterful job of imparting culture to dialogue while permitting the novel to retain an uncluttered, almost Hemingway-like readability. Recommended.