cover image I Loved You All

I Loved You All

Paula Sharp. Sterling Publications, $31.95 (384pp) ISBN 978-0-7868-6266-5

About midway through Sharp's fourth novel, the eight-year-old narrator, Penny Daigle, does a flip in the air for the ""sheer perilous pleasure"" of it. The same sensation is elicited in the reading of this exuberant and often hilarious story about growing up in bleak smalltown New York with a restless and loving family. It's 1977, and Penny Daigle, a girl of relentless energy and curiosity, and her uncertain and judgmental sister, 15-year-old Mahalia, must deal with their single mother Marguerite's alcoholism and eventual departure to ""The Place,"" a home in Louisiana for recovering alcoholics. Marguerite's boyfriend, a parole officer at the big state prison in town, and her puckish brother, F.X., a reporter given to dazzling monologues, are going along with Marguerite to keep an eye on her, and so Mahalia and Penny are saddled with straitlaced, pro-life babysitter Isabel Flood. Without taking sides or descending into clich , Sharp (Crows over a Wheatfield) brilliantly navigates the political and religious waters that swirl around the pro-life movement as Isabel seeks to spread her message around town with Mahalia's zealous, and Penny's reluctant, help. On the way, Penny meets a carnival of characters, including Mrs. Fury, who places Penny before a mirror to show her who her worst enemy is, and shy Katie, who, at Penny's urging, stows away in a van headed for Albany. As the town divides over the abortion issue, the dynamics of public dispute are mirrored in the sensitive negotiations of the Daigle family when Marguerite returns to find Mahalia determined to live with Isabel, now totally convinced that abortion is a sin. The narrative moves swiftly from conflict to conflict, buoyed by Sharp's perfect timing and occasionally ecstatic prose that renders water moccasins as ""black ink dropped in water"" and a truck headlight as ""a tilted goblet of gold liquid."" (Aug.)