Joshilyn Jackson is an author whose books I’ve heard about for a while. In fact, I think I put gods in Alabama on my to-read list back when it debuted. This novel is about Arlene Fleet, a young woman who thought she had left Alabama and her past behind when she moved to Chicago right out of high school. But then an old schoolmate shows up at her door ten years later looking for information about Jim Beverly, the boy who had been the high school quarterback when they were teenagers. Fearful that certain secrets may be revealed, Arlene is compelled to return to Alabama, along with Burr, her long-suffering boyfriend.
gods in Alabama is one of those books that alternates between the present day and past events. It’s also one of those books that loves to dangle its secrets. To Jackson’s credit, she doesn’t get too ambitious about the secret withholding and tells the reader early on that Arlene killed Jim Beverly. But the “why” behind Arlene’s actions is kept mostly obscured throughout the novel, and an earlier traumatic event is referred to repeatedly but not explained. I’m not a fan of this approach in storytelling generally; there’s an artificial aspect to it that I don’t like. If the writer keeps telegraphing that there’s a secret that no one can know, a story the characters swore they’d never tell, and stuff like that, there comes a point where I just flip ahead and find out what it is and get it over with. Which is what happened with gods in Alabama.
So after I spoiled myself, I considered not finishing the book for real, but when I’d peeked ahead, I’d liked what I’d seen of adult and teenager Clarice, Arlene’s cousin and a major player in the book’s secrets. Clarice is beautiful and beloved by basically everyone, including Arlene, but still remains a real person and doesn’t slip into some kind of sainthood.
And I’ll say this for the alternating story structure: Jackson doesn’t use it in an arbitrary fashion. The two major reveals in the book coincide with that story being told by one character to another, with it being a revelation to the listener in each instance. So, the secret-keeping is not entirely for reasons of tantalizing the reader, and it makes sense that the revelations are placed at these specific times in the novel.
In the end, structure aside, gods in Alabama struck me as a variation of stories I’d read or heard before, where the golden boy of the school is really a terrible person, and characters make dramatic promises to God or themselves, like they won’t ever lie. I’m afraid it’s not destined to stick in my brain for very long, but I don’t mind the time I spent on it.
Looking at other book bloggers’ reviews, I feel a bit alone in my lukewarm response to gods in Alabama. It seems to be generally well-loved. I also seem to be one of the few that read this book first and not the related novel, Backseat Saints, which was written later.
Excerpts from others’ reviews:
Book Chase – “It is a good story, and despite its comic nature, it is filled with observations about right and wrong, human nature, and growing up in a change-resisting South. My only quarrel with the novel is that I found two or three of the characters to be unrealistic and, in the case of Arlene’s black boyfriend, to be too good to be true.”
Rhapsody in Books – ” . . . the characters are treated with respect, and if they seem caricatured or stereotypical at first, it is only because the author has not yet revealed their depth to you.”
tiny little reading room – “This is my second Jackson book and I wasn’t disappointed – it’s snappy, sad, Southern, smart, and somewhat sweet, all at the same time.”