South of Broad
by Pat Conway
To readers of Pat Conway's several novels it will come as no surprise to learn that SOUTH of BROAD is a rich feast of a book. In it he writes about Charleston, South Carolina, a town "so pretty it makes your eyes ache with pleasure just to walk down its spellbinding, narrow streets". He writes of how its two rivers, the Ashley and the Cooper "have flooded and shaped my life on this storied peninsular". In Charleston's shadows you can find "metalwork as delicate as lace. In the secrecy of its gardens you can discover jasmine and camellias and hundreds of other plants that look embroidered and stolen from the Garden of Eden for the sheer love of richness and the joy of stealing from the gods." Charleston's appreciation of and respect for good food is legendary: Pat Conroy describes it all with good humour and with wit. But he is not without uneasiness at Charleston's dark history of racism and its snobbery. An important part of the story is concerned with that. The narrative unfolds along the rivers and in the narrow streets and secret gardens; his life-drawing is sensitive, knowledgeable and sympathetic.
It is impossible to write about the book and to disregard the author, because it is clearly autobiographical in feeling. Essentially the "hero" is a damaged boy, Leo, whose adored elder brother's suicide destroys his life. Although his parents love one another and Leo well enough, there is something amiss in the relationship that Leo is aware of but cannot place. His lack of confidence makes him unattractive, and, as vicious circles go, his is particularly vicious. As he grows into manhood his attempts to break out of it seem pathetic, and he never really seems to get his life together. But along the way he makes friends that cost him and his parents very dear, and excite mayhem in Charleston society: they are intriguing to read about and unexpected in their loyalty (and treachery). Religion, racism, prejudice and underage sex seem to flourish in that glorious but sultry climate.
The book is architectural in scope and feeling. It is a huge novel, nearly 700 pages. It is extravagant in its light and shade, gothic in tone, and as precise and massive as a cathedral. But its airiness makes it incredibly easy to read, and it has to be short listed for my Best Holiday Read of the Year!
The Punters Bookgroup, Cambridge
Published by Corvus. 640pp.