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Book Review: Muscadines by S.P. Miskowski

“Its Southern Gothic aesthetic is filled with allusion, and with suggestion, allowing for a measure of interpretation. And yet where it defines its darker aspects, it does so with both restraint and power.”

Muscadines - SP MiskowskiMuscadines are a type of grape, native to the south-eastern and south-central regions of America, and are also often used in the fermenting of wine. Ruth Parker has been making her own, special wine from them, on the farm she inherited when both of her parents died in close proximity. Now Ruth herself is dead, and the farm falls to her second oldest daughter, Martha, to look after; also taking care of younger sister Louise. One day, Alma, eldest daughter of Ruth, returns home for her own reasons, and slowly the family history is drawn out into the light, as loyalties shift and tensions mount. Yet this is no simple tale of familial discordance, and these are no ordinary women.

S.P. Miskowski is a writer who has been garnering critical acclaim for a number of years, steadily showcasing a deft hand at creating dark, literary stories with a powerful and distinctive voice. In Muscadines, she shows an astonishing ability to convey a wealth of detail and information in just a few, well chosen and naturalistic paragraphs. Within moments of reading, it is clear that this story is set at some point in America’s past, the writing imbued with a distinctive nostalgic element. Further, it is also evident that we are in the region of the ‘south’, the prose flavoured with talk of dirt roads, farming families, cotton fields. The tone is at once beguiling and punchy, these details imparted in short sentences, yet works very well, this contrast between the languid and the dynamic. Similarly, we are given only snippets about Martha and Louise’s life at the farm-house, yet the discerning reader will be able to infer a great deal of the familial relationship between these two even as further questions are raised as suspicions, as intuitions, as portents. Yes, there is love between the two—a broken, uneven, strained love—but there is also abuse, both physical and mental, and it is clear that Martha dominates Louise, who is obviously physically impaired, and perhaps mentally too. And when Alma arrives, upsetting the status quo, further dark secrets are revealed, stretching back beyond the current generation, gradually teased from the dialogue and hints given by Martha’s first person account.

A short novella—perhaps even novelette size—this work nevertheless manages to satisfy the reader’s need for a complete story (at the same time engendering a desire for a longer, more immersive work), whilst also catering to the ambiguous, to the atmospheric. Its Southern Gothic aesthetic is filled with allusion, and with suggestion, allowing for a measure of interpretation. And yet where it defines its darker aspects, it does so with both restraint and power; providing a greater impact with its subtly disturbing nature than reams of graphically depicted violence could ever hope to achieve.

Be aware, though; the characters are all rather unpleasant individuals, selfish and self-centered. Certainly not ‘likable’, but this is not the point, and nor should it be in fiction; especially not dark fiction. They are, however, fully realised, wonderfully drawn, and believable, displaying the dark sides of their humanity in three dimensions. Their dialogue is distinctive and individual, and they still manage to elicit a measure of empathy from the reader as it becomes clear just why they are this way. If anything, the story is an examination of how we become locked into certain, learned behaviours, of how the past influences the present, of how cycles of abuse and violence repeat and repeat.

A true dark literary masterpiece, one which is a showcase for a writer at the absolute height of her talents and having a complete mastery of her craft. Muscadines is an essential read for anyone who considers themselves a connoisseur of atmospheric, insightful, powerful literary writing.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Dunhams Manor Press
Hardcover (60 pp)
Release Date: 15 September 2016

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