Lack is everywhere in All the Living. Lack of rain, lack of cash, lack of other, less tangible things. From the first pages of C. E. Morgan’s gripping, sensual debut novel, the contemporary Kentucky countryside sprawls into view. Into this void—silent, spectral, and chalky with dust— comes Aloma, whose bereaved lover, Orren, has inherited the family tobacco farm. To Aloma’s wary eye, the place and its contents are qualified by absence, human and otherwise. A fan hangs “spinless, trailing its cobwebs like old hair, its spiders gone,” the farmhouse is “empty-spacious,” the displaced dirt from the gravel drive is “loath to lie down in boredom again.” There are real specters, too: the ghosts of Orren’s deceased relatives, whose home Aloma reluctantly inhabits, and Orren himself, who is all but a ghost, turned mute and distant with grief.
On this haunted background, Morgan paints a lush portrait of love in a bleak landscape. The farm is a far cry from the mountain gorge where Aloma grew up. Yet the “chasmed world” she leaves behind is no more remote than the one she finds with Orren, her first and only lover. All the Living is not quite a southern gothic—it has none of the warp, satire, and frank social comment of, say, Flannery O’Connor’s or Eudora Welty’s fiction—and Morgan does not delve, as Marilynne Robinson does, into the backlog of town and family history, though her writing possesses something of Robinson’s numinous style. This novel is, instead, a study of feeling bound up with place. As Orren tends to the wilting fields, Morgan charts Aloma’s shift from shock to loneliness to revolt. Orren is always just out of sight, just out of grasp, and his growing absence becomes its own infuriating presence in the narrative. Their brief exchanges seem poised on the verge of violence: “She pushed at him impatiently, and for a second felt a furthering wild urge to beat at him, strike him across the face and chest for having brought her here to the sorry edge of the mountains . . . where nothing worked, where every last thing wasted flesh into bone.”
Morgan at once probes and tempers this privation in rich, poetic prose. She knows the land and her characters in minute detail and sets them forth with startling, lyric certainty. Never, for instance, has tobacco been so lovingly described: “The white bunched blossoms had breasted out of their buds overnight, coming in darkness into sudden blooms the color of morning. They massed in whiteness before her, they topped the bruised and weathered plants.” She pays similar care to a twitch of a cheek, a shift in weight. Morgan attended divinity school, and there is a sense of conjuring in her language; her prose is both earthbound and hymnlike, with the slight inflection of southern scripture. When Aloma meets Bell, the preacher at the church where she plays piano, his flood of words is a tempting antidote to Orren’s reserve, and what starts as friendship boils over. Whether her choice in the closing pages is the right one, it is finally, as in the rhythmic breadth of Morgan’s language, “the exact opposite of lack.”