Work Like Any Other

Virginia Reeves

Published by Scribner US 1 March 2016/Scribner UK 7 April

272pp, hardcover, $25/400pp, £14.99

Reviewed by Elsbeth Lindner

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Repentance is an overused blurb term in US fiction, but in the case of Virginia Reeves’s debut it is, for once, deserved. This is a novel all about sin and regret, invoked by a man’s foolish plan to repair his own family problems without comprehension of the risks to himself and others.

Roscoe Martin, an electrician married to a teacher in Alabama in the early decades of the twentieth century, finds himself living a life he has not chosen. After his wife Marie inherits a farm from her father, the couple begin a new life there, but Roscoe has no appetite for agriculture and the land is failing. His remedy is to run an illegal electricity line from the recently built powerlines connected to a new dam and power station, using the assistance of his black farm manager Wilson. This stolen energy (a mere drop in the ocean, Roscoe reckons) will invigorate the farm’s fortunes and also his relationship with Marie and son Gerald.

And indeed, the consequences of this action are initially positive, however tragedy is waiting in the wings.

Reeves’s writing is spare yet vivid and accomplished. Her simple storyline is enhanced by the dreamy quality of imaginings which flit in and out of Roscoe’s consciousness like the birds admired and identified by Marie. Whether inventing scenarios which allow him to drift away from grim circumstances, or entertaining dialogues with Marie, when in truth she has abandoned him, these enhanced realities introduce a different dimension. They are, in part, Roscoe’s fantasy versions of the past and the future, his exteriorized hopes and fears; also a means of punishment, sometimes an expression of naïve belief.

Ultimately, Roscoe must deal both with the unspooling of events, hard facts and his own self. It’s no spoiler, in this essentially gentle book (and in spite of the darker places it visits), to say that the man finds peace. Does the journey convince? Is the grit truly grinding? Up to a point, Lord Copper. What’s undeniable is the grace of the writing and the sense that Reeves has a voice that readers will want to hear again.

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