Review: Natchez Burning: A Novel

Natchez Burning: A Novel
Natchez Burning: A Novel by Greg Iles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow! What a great book that was! 800-odd pages and I’m still annoyed to have come to the end. Not often you can say that. But wait! Luckily for me (and you), it’s only the start – of a trilogy.

Stephen King says on the cover of the version I have; “Amazing. I defy you to put it down.” First, note an American that used ‘amazing’ instead of ‘awesome.’ Then, yes, he is absolutely spot on. It wasn’t Steven King’s recommendation that got me to buy it, admittedly, that was a blog post from the New York Times or some such a while back. Greg Iles’ background to the story, the premise and the seeming intermingling of fact and fiction, all sounded not just intriguing, but absolutely ‘me.’ And I was right. So, Stephen King and I have something in common at least. Then, the fact that it was in a 2 for £7.00 offer at a UK supermarket and it being the size of a house-brick, pushed me over the edge. And…I did indeed find it very, very hard to put down.

It’s not a simple story, despite the ‘A father accused of murder. A son who must face the truth,’ on the front. That dilemma, is just one of the many themes running through the book and whilst it maybe pertinent for the character of Penn Cage (the son), it isn’t what drives or influences the story in the largest way. In fact, there isn’t an easy way to sum it up. So I’m not going to try. There isn’t the space – despite the size of some of my recent reviews – to do the complexity, the nuance, the history, the scope of the book anything like full justice. A bare bones then.

It is fiction, though it is set in and around the real American town of Natchez. Which is where author Greg Iles lives and many of the places, institutions and some of the historical cases, are, he says, real enough. It is a very skilfully woven tale, in and out of reality and I did find it took a while to let go of the feeling that he is writing about real incidents, relating a true, his own possibly, story. That’s good. So the story and its themes are supposed, in a fictional setting, to light up and explain, as far as they can be ‘explained’ in the Ku Klux Klan’s case, the whys and wherefores, the feelings and motives that a purely non-fiction telling probably could not. If I say ‘deep south of USA, 1960’s, into early ’70’s then up to ’now,’ you’ll maybe begin to place the events of the period that the book is dealing with. Penn Cage is a lawyer, an author and Mayor of Natchez. But it is about his father, Tom Cage, that he gets a worrying phone call right at the start of the book. His father is very likely about to be accused of deliberately killing an elderly black lady. A murder. Penn Cage, being a lawyer, a good one and sure of his father’s innocence, should make it just a misunderstanding and make it go away. However, problems there soon are. He finds that his father won’t tell him anything about the incident he stands accused of. Won’t tell him if he did it. Of if he didn’t do it. Even if he might or might not have done it. Nothing. Penn Cage discovers that the dead lady, was his father’s nurse back in the 60’s. Also, that she knew and/or was related to, several people who died at the hands of a particularly nasty local off-shoot of the Ku Klux Klan. And these men, while elderly nowadays, have family who aren’t, but are highly – and securely – placed in the local community. Including law enforcement. Problem is, as characters find out to their cost, the law they are enforcing, is very often their very own. As it was back in the early ’60’s as well. As you soon found out, if you lived in the US south and were black. Penn and his father aren’t the only characters who feature. There is a full and complex supporting cast of interesting people, who are caught up to varying degrees, in the maelstrom of emotions, events and incidents, which soon turn out to be equally as destructive, as hurricane Katrina which blew through the area a few months before the story’s ‘present’ starts. Got that?

There’s so much interest and incident, it really is hard to keep it short. But all of it, slowly, painstakingly revealed, fits well, is logical and entirely plausible – given the logic and plausibility of some of the characters – and always believable. The story wheels through many people’s lives, linking them to the story and building up a thoroughly compelling account of how the past is reaching out and taking hold of all their presents. For me, it is a book full of passion, anger, hope, regret, sadness, peace and longing. Personally, I read a real sense of longing for the past, sometimes to re-live those times, or maybe to alter them, or maybe even to just to understand them, put them finally in their place. The future seems on hold until the past is dealt with. That kind of thing.

The story is written in the first person when featuring Penn Cage (a name that still sounds like a thing, rather than a person to me, but there you go), third person for when other characters are involved. It is really well structured and well written, but subtle with it. It’s like it’s describing real events in real time, then and now (if that’s even possible) and we find our way forwards, together with the characters as they try to find out what is going on and how it all fits together. By not telling us (the reader) more than the characters know, Iles keeps us on the edge, of our seats and nerves (well, in my case anyway). An especially admirable feat when done over 800-odd pages. The story moves backwards and forwards in time seamlessly, as each character contemplates their part in how the story came to be and as it unfolds in the present. It seems to be done depending on whether what is happening now needs explaining with what happened in the past and I’ll admit I was a little thrown off balance a couple of times. Makes you pay attention though. It’s like the characters are daydreaming sometimes, transported by something they see or hear, back to a time when a relevant incident happened. However, it all hangs together and works extremely well. The Hurricane Katrina disaster that hit the area for real in 2005, is – I think – used as a way of explaining the storm of feelings that were caused by the racial tensions and conflict of the 1960’s, with the book charting the kind of clear-up operation from that emotional hurricane, still going on today. The characters find that what they did back then, they can’t escape from now. Their past, their past actions, is still the present, though they have tried to run and hide. Like the hurricane, as the books says; “The problem is, the past has crashed into the present.” The past has also left a trail of devastation into the present and the unravelling is what the book is all about.

There is no way I could give this anything other than the big five stars. I’m very much looking forward to the second volume. If you haven’t already – go investigate ’Natchez Burning’ for yourself.

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