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What the River Washed Away – A New Novel Set in Rural Louisiana – Review

One of the pleasures and perks of blogging about New Orleans is receiving unexpected packages in the mail of items to recommend in a blog post or requests to review books about New Orleans or Louisiana novels on the verge of being published.

What the River Washed Away – A New Novel Set in Rural Louisiana -Review

A few months ago when I got an invitation in my inbox to review a book set in Louisiana of course I felt it was my duty to accept. I always hope the books I get are good because not only do I hate having to read a bad book I hate having to give a bad review.

Many years ago when I was living in L.A. and working in the film industry one of my first jobs was to be a reader. I worked for a production company and they would send me books and scripts to read and write a review with recommendations as to whether it would make a good movie or not.

I love to read and sad to say that three fourths of the stuff I was sent was dreadful, a real chore to wade through. But every once in a while I’d get a great book or a script and was happy to recommend it. Of course, none of what I recommended ever got made into a movie. Oh well.

Fortunately, so far all of the books I’ve been asked to review for this blog have all been excellent. The new book by first time author Muriel Mhaurie Macleod is an exception as I would rate this book not only excellent but remarkable.

To be honest, when I received it in the mail I cracked it open and read the first few pages. It’s written in the first person of a young black girl in rural southern Louisiana and the authentic idiomatic language and pronunciation seemed at first a bit daunting.

Certainly having to read this narrative in this voice would slow down the reading and unfolding of the events of the novel. I just was not ready for it. So I put it aside in my pile of things to read always keeping it on top knowing eventually I’d get to it.

After several weeks time came for me to tackle it again. So I sat, opened the book and dove in, and at about page 10 I was thoroughly hooked. I got into the cadence of the narrator, the little girl Arletta, to where her words and pronunciation just seemed so natural and seemed especially true to the story, characters and setting.

How the author got into the head of this poor little black girl, living in a shack in the woods, raised by her flighty, voodoo priestess mother Mambo was remarkable, telling it almost as if she experienced it herself.

The situation and abuse Arletta has to endure is awful but she gains strength from an invisible friend and her finding her inner strength is what propels the book along. What Macleod has drawn are compelling not just three-dimensional but multi-dimensional characters that come alive on the page.

You get a real sense of place as the mood of each scene surrounds you wherever you’ve set yourself down to read the book. The novel is very southern, and Macleod writes like the very best of Southern writers.

And here’s the really great thing about this book: nothing is predictable. From page to page the author does a great job of not foreshadowing what’s going to happen. Every event as the story moves along is a surprise. In addition, nothing about the story seems contrived, it all seems to flow naturally from one scene to another with Arletta, the narrator, the focal point of the entire book.

Now here’s the real kicker: The author Muriel Mcleod was born and raised in Scotland and still makes her home there. She’s white. What she has pulled off with her first book is, in my view, a monumental feat of storytelling. It would be akin to me writing a novel set on a little island in Scotland using the language and cadence of the characters with a full grasp of the history and culture. I could not even imagine attempting it.

If I had received this book back in the day when I was a reader in L.A. this would receive my unequivocal recommendation to be made into a movie. Great believable characters, compelling visuals and a story arc that makes this book hard to put down once you get into it, these all necessary ingredients to make a great film. This great Louisiana novel, What the River Washed Away, has it all in spades.

I had the privilege of interviewing the author. You’ll see in the video above I’m at my desk in New Orleans and she’s on a little island off the coast of Scotland, the Isle of Lewis which is in the northwest corner of the Hebrides. We talk about how she came up with the idea for the story, why she wrote and how she came up with the voice of Arletta. It’s a fascinating interview with this fascinating first time author.

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