Now, there’s an opening line to grab you. Arlene Fleet knows about the gods in Alabama because, as she later explains, she killed one. In high school, she smashed quarterback Jim Beverly over the head with a bottle and left his body in the kudzu vines. Afterward, she made a deal with God: she would stop lying, stop fornicating with every boy in her class, and never return to Possett, Alabama, as long as God makes sure the body is never found.
Ten years later, Arlene is a graduate student in Chicago and is holding true to the bargain. She’s built a life for herself and has fallen in love with an African-American man. He is pushing her to take him home to meet her family, but Arlene is not going back on her deal with God. Then, an old classmate shows up and starts asking questions about the dead boy. Arlene decides the deal is off and returns home to confront her past and deal with her family’s reaction to her African-American boyfriend. Along the way, Arlene makes discoveries that bring her to a new understanding of herself and her family.
gods in Alabama is Joshilyn Jackson’s debut novel, and it garnered much praise and won a Southern Independent Book Award. The accolades were deserved. Jackson is an outstanding storyteller. Her language is vivid, with lots of Southernisms that will make you laugh. She has crafted a strong Southern novel, full of eccentric but good-hearted characters. Arlene makes a perfect protagonist—she is smart and generous but is also naïve and selfish. She is never boring. The murder mystery is engrossing. What happened and why it happened are revealed slowly, keeping the reader guessing until the end. Yet the murder is not the focus of the book that it appears to be at first. Instead, it serves as the backdrop for Arlene’s coming to terms with herself, her family, her past, and her future. It’s Arlene’s journey of self-discovery that really touches you.
I plan to read more by Joshilyn Jackson. If you like Flannery O’Connor and Barbara Kingsolver, you should give her a try. 4.5 pillows.