cover image Bells for Eli

Bells for Eli

Susan Beckham Zurenda. Mercer Univ, $25 (272p) ISBN 978-0-88146-737-6

In Zurenda’s beautifully crafted debut, a young woman unexpectedly withdraws from her senior year of college in 1978 and returns to her hometown in South Carolina. The reasons Delia Green has “exiled herself at home” in Green Branch, S.C., come to light through details about her childhood spent growing up across the street from her first cousin, Eli Winfield. The cousins are both three when, in 1959, Eli swallows lye his father has left unattended. Returning from a long hospitalization, he becomes the target of brutal bullying by neighborhood boys, torments that Delia, his fiercely protective companion, keeps secret at his insistence. Eli is healthy, handsome, and reckless by the time the cousins reach adolescence in the 1970s, and they gradually realize they are attracted to each other. Pulling back from emotions they know are taboo, they attend separate colleges. Through letters and on visits to Eli’s squalid off-campus house, Delia watches helplessly as Eli’s life spirals out of control from drug use. The novel’s sensitive but grounded voice seamlessly integrates Gothic elements, the cousins’ emotional arcs, and the shifting cultural landscape. Insightful and assured, Zurenda’s haunting coming-of-age story should appeal to fans of nuanced and atmospheric Southern fiction. Agent: Marly Rusoff, Marly Rusoff Literary Agency. (Mar.)