Mudbound, By Hillary Jordan

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The Independent Culture

In a week of historic American elections, Hillary Jordan's emotive debut, set in 1940s Mississippi, is a timely reminder of the realities of post-bellum politics in the South.

The novel's long-suffering heroine, Laura McAllan, a city-bred teacher, is fast approaching middle age when she meets and marries Henry, that "rare and marvellous creature, a 41-year-old bachelor". Indulging her new husband's desire to own his own land, Laura moves to a remote cotton farm in the Mississippi Delta. An isolated new mother, with only her bigoted father-in-law for company, she wages a day-long battle against mud and dirt.

Life takes a turn for the better with the arrival of two returning war veterans: there is Jamie, Henry's good-looking younger brother, and Ronsel Jackson, the witty and engaging son of one of Henry's black tenant farmers.

Adultery and alcoholism, rough justice and racism may be the stock in trade of any number of Southern novels, but Jordan neatly sidesteps pat endings and solutions. The novel's alternating narrative voices work well. Only Ronsel's wartime flashbacks, which are uneasily shoe-horned into the homespun domestic drama, feel forced.

The flat landscape of the Delta and its sudden electric storms provide a suitably gothic backdrop for the shocking denouement to come. The winner of Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize for a novel "promoting social responsibility", Hillary Jordan is happily a writer who puts her duty to entertain first.

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