cover image FIFTH BORN


Zelda Lockhart, . . S&S/Atria, $24 (224pp) ISBN 978-0-7434-1265-0

Set in Mississippi and Missouri in the 1970s, this strong debut novel tackles harrowing if familiar themes of family violence and abuse. As the fifth child in a family of eight siblings, Odessa Blackburn sees herself as the "invisible middle" of her family. Sexually abused by her alcoholic father early in life and then again in late childhood, Odessa feels herself pushed away by her enabling mother and alienated by her own siblings, each of whom has a different strategy for coping with the family dysfunction. As Odessa grows up, she learns that her mother is having an affair with her father's older brother, Leland, and when her father learns of it and murders Leland, Odessa is the only witness. Unable to tell anyone what she's seen or about her own molestations, Odessa turns inward to memories of the one person who has ever shown her any real love: her grandmother, whose funeral opens the book. Odessa discovers a message in her grandmother's Bible that sheds some light on the intergenerational anguish of her family: "I lived in fear so much I couldn't show you any love." As Odessa begins her quest for a haven, she finds a long-lost relative who is also the "fifth born" and plays an important role in helping her rediscover her sense of trust. First-time author Lockhart, student of bestselling author Dorothy Allison, paints a disturbing portrait of childhood sexual abuse and its repercussions, and the strain alcoholism places on a family. While little new territory is covered here from a literary standpoint, Lockhart's narrative is straightforward and lyrical, Odessa's voice is believable and the evolution of her character in the face of overwhelming alienation is as engaging as it is heartbreaking. (Aug. 6)