Selah Saterstrom, Author . Coffee House $15 (140p) ISBN 978-1-56689-155-4

Saterstrom's harrowing but gorgeous debut chronicles four generations of women in a tragically haunted Mississippi family. Divided into five sections and including old photographs and excerpts from the Confederate Ball Program Guide 1938, the book reveals decades of poverty, abuse and alcoholism. In the fractured first section, Saterstrom introduces Abella and her daughter, Azalea, in staccato, spare sentences; the moments described feel crucial but ransacked, since Saterstrom leaves large spaces between words that may have swallowed integral bits of information. Abella, "a woman [who] enjoyed socializing and thinking about restoration projects," is married to the abusive, alcoholic policeman Micajah. His beatings and likely sexual abuse (never fully revealed but strongly suggested) take their toll on their daughter, Azalea; she turns to the bottle and marries Willie, a lawyer distressingly like her father who later becomes a district judge. In section two, succinctly titled passages like "Vitamins," "Bracelets" and "Hitchhiker" convey in taut, unaffected language the horror Willie and Azalea's four daughters witness throughout their childhood. The girls narrowly survive their violent upbringing and have children themselves. Aza, who repeatedly attempted suicide as a child, begets the unnamed narrator of section four whose spooked but sensitive voice steers the book through some of its richest, most devastating passages. Brutal but also deeply lyrical, Saterstrom's beautiful novel paints a portrait of a family wracked by its own dysfunction and held fast by a place that has never fully recovered since the day the Civil War began—the day known, as the book tellingly reminds us, as "Ruination Day." (Apr.)

Reviewed on: 03/22/2004
Release date: 04/01/2004
The Best Books, Emailed Every Week
Tip Sheet!