Maren, Mesha. Sugar run. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 2019. $26.95. 320p. HC. 9781616206215.
“The air smelled wet and full of the fungus-scent of plants that need no sun, the silt and sandstone, and something ranker, layers and layers of unseen earth. The band of light before her grew until she pushed out into a circular stone room with one wall completely open to the cliff face. The sunlight blinded worse than the darkness and she crouched with her eyes closed, feeling the rock at her back and the air before her. The wind flew in at them and funneled around, shuffling the dry oak leaves.”
“Is this the house”, Donnie said, “where baby Jesus lives?” His voice bounced off the limestone and mixed in with Farren’s laughter. (p. 198)
Jodi McCarty is 17 when she is sentenced to life in prison for manslaughter. Coming off the high of a life on the road with her girlfriend, Paula, she spends the next 18 years in Jaxton penitentiary, each day a routine of brutal predictability. Released suddenly, Jodi finds herself on her way back to her home in the Appalachian mountains, an area finding itself under the crushing hands of frackers, changing the small-town rural life that Jodi remembers. On her way to make amends with her past, she falls in love with another lost woman, Miranda Maston, a young mother of three. The two make for a new life West Virginia, grasping for an escape from the routines they knew before they met one another.
Maren’s prose shines throughout the book, where little action propels the plot forward, and instead a foreboding sense of dread, coupled with the harsh and pointed prose, pulls the plot towards some sense of resolution. Two timelines switch back and forth over the course of the novel, the “current” in year 2007, as Jodi and Miranda try for a new life in West Virginia; and the months preceding Jodi’s arrest for murder in 1989, where Jodi and her girlfriend, Paula, trek to Mexico with hopes of hitting it big at the casino. The timelines weave themes of overindulgence, addiction, poverty and desperation with tales of decisiveness, hope, and lots of grit.
The character studies of the very different queer women in rural Appalachia proves interesting, infuriating, and uniquely different than anything else going on in queer lit right now. The point of this novel is decidedly not that these women are queer, but rather the decisions that come after their loving one another: when Jodi realizes she loves Paula and wants more out of life than West Virginia can give her; when Miranda sees a future for her sons with Jodi and not with her husband. The way these women carve out a space of safety for themselves in the mountains, believing they can have a life there, away from the prying eyes of the town. It is refreshing and uniquely new that this novel carries on with such little focus on the sexuality of these women, and rather focuses on the decisions they make after they’ve decided to love one another.
Maren’s debut novel will hit or miss with readers, who looking for a fast-paced heist novel about two women in love, will find something much different. The pacing is slow and then fast, slow and then fast, hitting the reader with sharp prose and thoughtful characters who have no idea who they are or why they make the decisions they do. They are unchanging in their chaotic, often selfish decision making, and readers will not find themselves rooting for them. Instead, like a trainwreck, you cannot look away from the beauty and tragedy of it all.