It’s 1966 and Bernice, adrift since her husband disappeared six months ago, joins her brother Floyd in Mississippi to work on a cotton plantation. Although she works the fields during the day, she works in the house at night, where she is drawn unwillingly into the problems of the unhappy white couple who owns the plantation. When two teenaged boys who grew up on the plantation return to help with the harvest, long-buried secrets rise to the surface. The Missus begins a dangerous game, one that threatens everyone living on Kern Plantation, from her resentful husband to the boys—bold Jesse and bookish Fletcher—to their mother Silva, who has worked on the plantation since before her boys were born. Bernice hears and sees more than the Missus knows, but is it enough to thwart the Missus’s plans? As those on the plantation make increasingly desperate decisions, Bernice balances their secrets, their lies, and their desires.
Pale is a leisurely novel, though not without tension. The inhabitants of Kern Plantation are imperfect. They grapple with long-held jealousies, resentments, and longings. Farmer builds tension by contrasting emotion with environment, by letting characters fail and grieve, by making them human. He excels at atmosphere, using the oppressive heat of the summer, the heaviness of the night sky, the sound of the wind through the cotton, and the isolation of the plantation to deepen the feeling of melancholy. Bernice winds her way through the story almost as a flaneur, observing events that she cannot—or will not—change. Recommended for readers who like quiet, character-driven novels.