Helen Scully's debut novel In The Hope Of Rising Again exudes an unmistakable Tara-through-the-looking-glass vibe, although no Spanish moss hangs from live oaks and no debutantes fan themselves while drinking mint juleps on the plantation porch. Instead, time flows around Mobile, Alabama residents who seem incapable of adaptive change, and who get swept along on an inadvertent journey out of the old South into the new. Scully's strikingly original tale reinvents Southern Gothic in a postbellum idiom, stuffed full of fate, tragic ambition, and family, but devoid of romanticism and sentiment.
Beginning with Reconstruction—when the Riant family patriarch accepts the social honorific "Colonel," even though he failed to earn the rank on the battlefield—and ending with a houseful of activist women in the waning days of the Great Depression, In The Hope Of Rising Again tells the Riants' story through Regina, the last daughter and practically the only character with interludes of relative clarity. Intoxicated by sex and procreation, she ends up in a bad marriage to a lumber magnate who can't make his land profitable, and her little brood winds up moving back into the Riant estate with her increasingly isolated mother, four worthless and interchangeable brothers, and the unaccountably faithful servant Camilla. As relationships and livelihoods fall apart around her, Regina drifts in and out of a Catholic haze, unable to make sense of the vast changes time and inattention have wreaked on her fortunes.
Scully creates a singular aura around this story: crammed with incident yet languid in pace, perfumed and corseted yet heavy with heat, tenuously tethered to practical matters yet far from worldly concerns. Every 50 pages or so, she bursts briefly into a poetic flight of language, as if she can't resist the rhythms and fullness of the words: "They were not animals but they wanted to be mothers. Such was the awful mystery of the body to them." Her characters don't have the heart to fight through their fog of privilege, expectation, and vague hope, just for the dubious benefit of grasping a world less real than the one they invoke in their nightly rosaries.
In The Hope Of Rising Again casts a strange spell. Reading it feels like taking drugs or watching the world through an aquarium: Scully submerges readers in the psyche of a woman who embodies several different worlds, but sometimes seems about to let go of her own existence altogether. The novel seems less written than eroded, as if it had been inscribed on fossilized earth by a gradually receding flood.