cover image Shiner


Amy Jo Burns. Riverhead, $27 (272p) ISBN 978-0-525-53364-1

In Burns’s layered, evocative debut novel (after the memoir Cinderland), trauma and hope pass from mother to daughter in a West Virginia family. Wren Bird is the 15-year-old daughter of a one-eyed snake-handling preacher, Briar Bird, and his wife, Ruby Day. Superstitious, charismatic, and devoted to a wife who openly despises him, Briar forces his family to live isolated in the mountains, resulting in few chances for Ruby and Wren to interact with the people of Trap, the nearest town. Their only regular visitor is Ruby’s childhood best friend, Ivy, whose deep connection with Ruby led her to settle with her family nearby. “It started with a burn,” begins the novel—Ivy visits Ruby and Wren one fateful day, and her dress and hair catch on fire. Briar heals her, with nary a scar, but when she starts calling Briar “White Eye,” Ruby and Wren question what happened to Ivy. As Wren contends with the ramifications of her father’s “miracle,” she also begins to uncover the history behind his faith. Though the recursive structure stutters toward big reveals, making it difficult for readers to fully connect with any of the characters, Burns beautifully renders the isolated Appalachian landscape and the urgent desperation of her characters. Burns’s stunning prose is reason enough to keep an eye out for this promising writer’s next effort. (May)