Review by E. Kirshe
Scribe by Alyson Hagy is a fascinating and quick read yet at just under 160 pages this novel packs a lot of story. Hagy’s writing is beautiful, stylistically as the whole book comes off as poetic as well as having that practicality that lets the reader feel like they are really in the landscape of the novel.
“Outside, the air was layered with the scents of cooling bark and leaves. The sun flared behind the hill where the Hopkins house lay in ruins, nothing left to scratch the sky but its four stout chimneys. Persimmons. The sunset was the color of persimmons.”
And what a strange location it is- set in a harsh dystopian landscape of a post-war, post-pandemic Appalachia the decimated population relies on bartering and brute force to survive.
The unnamed main character trades in words, writing letters for people who seem to think the act can vindicate or more importantly offer them absolution. She’s been living in peace on her family’s lands for years; alliances are kept in place both with the local overseer Billy Kingery and with the group of migrants she allows to live on her land, the Uninvited, a group which seems to almost worship her late sister. When she agrees to write and deliver a letter, something of a confession, for a mysterious man named Hendricks a devastating series of events unfold.
The writing is dream-like at times even going well into fantasy- apparitions appear, the dead speak, dreams and reality intertwine. All of these occurrences are straight out of the folkloric influences that Hagy relies on. Throughout the novel the power of words are ever present. Language, history, and stories (whether oral, written, or even mythical) shape reality. Whether it’s the stories told
about ourselves, to ourselves, or to the world, how people make meaning out of stories can be a matter of life or death. Language is what our scribe trades in and it’s also all that’s left of humanity for a populace that has almost none:
“They think if they drink my spring water I’ll steal from them, she continued. And it’s not their children I’ll take, or their food, or their no-good metal money. It’s their language. They think I’ll thieve the survivors’ talk right out of their mouths…They think my water will wash away the languages they share, she repeated.”
Language is what survives the after the downfall of polite society and is also what’s left after survival has personally worn you down. Scribe is also about the responsibility of survival, reaping what you’ve sowed and more importantly knowing what you’ve earned in life- whether good or bad.
“But it wasn’t safe or simple to take on the burdens of another person’s history, all those sins and vacancies. The burdens sometimes stayed with her even after they were lifted from those who had earned them. They accumulated. So it must be. Translating human misdeeds was all she knew how to do. Her sister had been a healer and a meddler. She, herself, had nothing to offer the world except the recording ofits failures.”
In the same way the protagonist acts as sin eater for many of the people she’s written letters for, she absolves herself in delivering Hendrick’s letter across the barren and unforgiving landscape- taking it to a literal crossroads where she realizes the true value of her gift for words.
Scribe falls into a realm of books with this word cloud: artful, eerie, dark, stunning, haunting. Plotted quickly and written expertly Scribe is the next book you’ll be thrilled to have picked up.
Scribe is now available from Graywolf Press.
The Furious Gazelle received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review