Sugar Run by Mesha Maren
Published by Algonquin Books
Publication date: January 8, 2019
Genres: Contemporary, Debut, Fiction, Literary
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Jodi has dealt with feeling unwanted and out of place for most of her life. As a little girl her parents decided she was best off being raised by her grandmother on a remote farm in the Appalachians of West Virginia. Later, as a teen she fell deeply in love with a woman who had a knack for playing poker and dangerous behavior. There’s passion, but the feeling is never quite reciprocated. Which leads to her spending 18 years in prison for murder. Mesha Maren’s debut novel, Sugar Run, begins with Jodi’s release and her resolve to make things right and find her place.
Finding her place means returning to her grandmother’s farm, getting a job to pay off the back taxes and making it her own. But before she gets there she has one promise to keep: get her dead girlfriend’s brother away from their abusive father. What begins as a single-minded journey is complicated when she meets Miranda, a beautiful young woman whose husband has taken their three boys away from her in their twisted push-pull relationship. Jodi can’t help but help and soon she’s responsible for three small children, a woman with a drug problem, and Ricky, the boy she went to find, who is now a young man. Somehow, this group settles in the ramshackle cabin that is all that’s left of the farm and tries to create the family none of them have ever had.
It would be nice if this were some lovely little novel about how good intentions, combined with determination, make things right, but that’s not the world of Sugar Run. Or, very likely, the world of rural West Virginia. Instead, Jodi is blocked at every step by employment forms asking about felony convictions, Miranda’s husband is hunting for her, and fracking companies are moving ever closer to the land Jodi wants to save. These circumstances may be covered in poverty, but Maren’s writing is so rich it glows. She connects the reader to the characters with passages like
“You know,” Miranda whispered, “when I was little I thought the universe had an order that was waiting for me. I thought there was a space, a me-shaped space, and when I found it I’d know it. Like when a key fits into a lock, I’d click into place and move through into a new future. There were hundreds of millions of spaces, I thought, holes in the universe, and you had to find the one that was right”
Who can’t relate to that? Miranda is a negligent mother with a penchant for pills, but Maren scrapes off the grimy outer shell of her characters and reveals the inner emotions that fill all of us.
When the writing is as luscious as this, I can overlook a lot. Thankfully, I didn’t have to in Sugar Run, but one area that is likely to bother some readers is the novel’s pacing. It’s uneven, it tugs and then slackens, meaning there will be those who lose interest. For me, the table Maren sets, with characters that are like china from a flea market—mismatched and fragile, is enough. Like all of us, they carry the past in their patterns even when they want to leave it behind. It makes for the kind of bittersweet reading that resonates.
She was sick with a wild vertigo, and thought she tried not to think about it, she could suddenly see all her messy loyalties unspooling and coiling down the hillside before her, all the links and chains of mistakes…