cover image The Laughing Place

The Laughing Place

Pam Durban. Scribner Book Company, $21 (344pp) ISBN 978-0-684-19258-1

A young widow learns that the past cannot be recaptured in this deeply felt first novel about the New (and the Old) South. Annie Vess returns to Timmons, S.C., after her father's death and quickly sinks into a profound depression. Everything she remembers from her childhood is gone: the family's 500 acres of land are sunk beneath a man-made lake; their fortune has mysteriously disappeared; her mother has become a born-again Christian; Timmons society has been overwhelmed by nouveau riche real estate developers, most notably her cousin's sexy, aggressive fiance Canady. Although she is still haunted by her husband's memory, the needy and confused Annie plunges into a romance with Legree Black, a photographer and ecologist she meets by chance in the town graveyard. Only when she learns that her father and relatives are not the people they pretended to be can she begin her life anew. Award-winning short story writer Durban ( All Set About with Fever Trees ) blends the gritty realism of Dreiser with the lyrical sadness of a southern gothic, describing the shift between ``this world where we trusted that change was orderly and slow, and another world where the most terrible and permanent things could happen in an instant.'' A challenging and laudable debut. ( June )