I get asked all the time to recommend someone’s next read, probably because I’m so opinionated about books (no, really?) and because anyone who sets foot in the house can see that I’m quite fond of them. (In the old house I’d run out of shelf space and had resorted to stacking books on the stairs. I thought that this was a pretty trashy thing to do, but really, I had no choice. I feel somewhat better about myself now that I’ve discovered this site. I mean, look at this.)
But since you’ve asked, I’ll tell you. I like Ellen Gilchrist a lot. She has this interesting shtick in that her cast of characters—some are related, some live in the same neighborhood, some are friends, or cousins, some are employees of the others—appears over and over again in her stories and novels, and are interconnected in subtle ways that you have to keep reading to completely discover. There may well be other authors who do this, but when I started reading Gilchrist in the early ’80s, I’d never seen anything quite like it (and still haven’t). Talk about character development: these are people Gilchrist has written about for thirty years. If you love characters, it’s a joy to be able to move on to the next book and catch up with them again. (I’m particularly fond of Rhoda.)
Gilchrist grew up on a plantation near Vicksburg, Mississippi. This is Old South, folks, and she has the genteel life rhythms, the voices, the sense of place down pat; if you are from the South or live here, you’ll recognize it immediately in her writing. She also lived in Northwest Arkansas (she taught creative writing at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville for some years), and writes movingly of that part of the country as well (I also lived there).
So where should I start? you ask. I am normally a fan of a big, fat novel—and Gilchrist’s are fine; I particularly loved Net of Jewels (readers who loved, as I did, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help will too), not least because it’s about Rhoda—but it’s the short stories in which Gilchrist really shines. In the Land of Dreamy Dreams (1981), Victory Over Japan (1984; won the National Book Award for Fiction), Drunk With Love (1986), Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle (1989), I Cannot Get You Close Enough (1990), The Age of Miracles (1996), The Courts of Love (1996)—these are positively luminous books. And because they utilize recurring characters, the end result is not unlike a novel. (Sadly, most are out of print. You can get them at the library or from the used-book websites.)
Gilchrist’s characters live large; they do things (they misbehave) in ways I never would have dreamed of doing myself. (Perhaps this is why I find them so appealing.) She remembers her childhood vividly, and has a keen eye for the dialogue and habits of children and teens. Beyond that, I just love the way she writes, with interesting asides and digressions and rants. Gilchrist also writes poetry and, as mentioned in a previous post, has published a collection of autobiographical essays in Falling Through Space: The Journals of Ellen Gilchrist. Let me know what you think.
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