The only thing I’ve ever been addicted to is saying yes.
Lindsay Parnell’s debut novel is a visceral assault on the emotions from the first page to the last. Exploring the wounds that are inflicted from girlhood into womanhood and the powers and possibilities of a small American town and its relationship to the church, Dogwood tells the story of three young friends – Harper, Collier and Caro – growing up in Virginia.
We enter the story through the voice and perspective of Harper as she writes to her younger brother Job. Harper’s letter focuses on the grisly fate of Tara Hackett, a woman who murdered her own sons and their father, and the ensuing narrative that unfolds is Harper’s way of working through her relationship with Tara and the three other significant women in her life: her mother, Collier and Caro. Collier and Caro are like sisters to Harper, yet the heat and incestuous claustrophobia of their girlhood shapes their lives into a tightly woven knot of friendship with all its tender and harrowing consequences.
All the things that happened happened in summer. Maybe that’s because folks sin in the summer months more than any other season. Sinning is easier done in the sticky months with less clothes and when the sun stays out, spitting its hot breath into the dry ground until almost midnight. The sun’s never weak, not never.
Lyndsay Parnell has a heart-rending knack for creating characters who live and breathe off the page; characters who can enter the world of the reader almost physically. With just a few sentences, Parnell sketches her characters’ reality, their relationships to one another, their aching joys and their ecstatic sorrows. It’s the corporeality of this novel, and its shatteringly physical impact that stays with you so long after reading: I can still feel the characters deep within my bones. It’s transformative reading that has an undeniably tangible impact fused with the mental and emotional trauma of the story that it tells.
At the novel’s core is the theme of the relationship between mothers and children, particularly mothers and their daughters. From the first thing we learn about Tara Hackett, through Harper’s destructive relationship with her own mother – the ever-capitalised ‘She’, or ‘Her’ – to the knotted relationship of the three girls and their own complicated potential to enter into motherhood themselves, this relationship is always explored through the carnal and bloody reality of the female body: the interior and exterior limits of human flesh.
I’m seven and it’s the first summer She accidentally burns me with Her cigarette. I wince when She blows on the raw pink flesh then kisses my neck. She apologizes through tears with a mouth that’s poison slick and it’s the first time I know me and Her don’t have the same skin anymore. That we don’t like the same types of touch and pain. I’m seven and no matter how hard I press my own flesh into Hers, we don’t have the same body no more.
Despite the brutality of many of the relationships described in the novel, there’s such a tender longing for love and trust and forgiveness; a yearning for an impossible return to the nurturing safety of the innocent mother-child bond which may never, in reality, have existed. It’s this deeply wounded love that generates the novel’s subatomic structure: it has the power both to hold the characters together and to tear them catastrophically apart.
Parnell experiments with an innovative non-linear narrative structure, offering flashes of memory grouped around the ages of the three friends at the time of each significant event intertwined with the first-person epistolary fragments of Harper’s letter to Job. This gives the novel a vibrant immediacy throughout its narrative, maintaining the logic of the impossible return without the deadening intrusion of flashback taking the reader away from the story’s present – achieved through the use of the present tense to narrate the third-person accounts of Harper’s history. The effect is to heighten the reader’s immersion in the narrative, which I think contributes greatly to the novel’s sharp, visceral impact.
Of all the manifest achievements of Dogwood – and there are so many – the most lasting, for me, are the ways in which it inscribes the feminine body in such agonizingly sensitive ways – ways that can’t fail to imprint themselves within the cells and tissues of the reader’s own physical experience.
This is an extraordinary debut novel, deserving of a lot of attention and some hefty literary acknowledgement.
About the publisher:
Linen Press is dedicated to publishing ‘fine writing for women, by women’, specialising in literary fiction that gives voice to a wide range of themes and perspectives relevant to women today. As the only independent women’s press currently operating in the UK, Linen Press has the unique privilege and responsibility of following in the footsteps of such presses as Virago and The Women’s Press. Many of Linen Press’s books and writers have won or been shortlisted for a variety of literary awards. Editor Lynn Michell is passionate about taking bold risks to publish innovative and challenging women’s writing such as Dogwood, and long may that continue.
Review by Sally-Shakti Willow, Research Assistant for the Contemporary Small Press
Sally is studying for a practice-based PhD in utopian poetics and experimental writing at the University of Westminster.