|Review by: Natasha Whitton||
By Bev Marshall
In her debut novel, Bev Marshall creates a new genre by fusing Southern Gothic, suspense-filled mystery, and intense character study. Since the protagonist of the novel, 17-year-old Sheila Carruth Barnes is found dead in the first chapter, it is the job of the ensemble cast to retell the events that lead to her shocking murder. Although the crime is solved by the last page, the journey provides not only a slice of life in Zebulon, Mississippi, but a road map for mastering successful living.
Sheila arrives at the farm of Lloyd and Rowena Cotton on July 24, 1939, with all her possessions slung in a sack over the hump on her back and considerable emotional baggage. As the eldest daughter of a local alcoholic and his submissive wife, Sheila's sunny optimism that quickly wins over the Cottons and their young daughter, Annette, is at odds with her violent past. As Sheila explains to her new friend, "You can walk through shadows if you watch the sun and do it just right." And as is often the case in life, this motley cast of characters must walk through a number of shadows to reach patches of sunlight.
Although Sheila is painfully thin and hump-backed, she soon attracts the attention of another farmhand on the Cotton's dairy, Stoney Barnes. Following a brief courtship, the two marry and are soon expecting a child. The happiness of their union seems short-lived, however, and Annette begins to suspect that Stoney is beating Sheila just as her father once had.
One of the strengths of the novel is its clear characterizations, particularly that of Annette Cotton. From the moment that we meet young Annette, her keen observations belie her ten years. Through her eyes, we see the magic and wonder that embodies Sheila's optimistic view of the world. Annette's mother, Rowena, is equally well illustrated as is her father, Lloyd. The reader is strangely drawn to each of the characters as they bare their soul in the narrative retelling of events they have witnessed, even while knowing that one of them may very well be the murderer.
Another particular strength of Marshall's is her uncanny ability to evoke an atmosphere of the South during the 1940s. Throughout the novel, the characters stride through vividly painted scenes, including one visit to a local fair. Always biting at our ankles is the undercurrent of provincial attitudes and stereotypes. This dichotomy is made especially clear when Lloyd decides to enter the tent of a female snake charmer under the reproving stare of his young daughter. At the same time, Sheila's free sexuality is at odds with the choked morals of the era.
It is within the closed setting of this community that Marshall stages a human passion play of universal proportions. Far from acting as stereotypes, her characters leap from the page drawing new insights from our common human existence. Walking Through Shadows is well worth the read.