Angst through a Civil War prism

Cushla McKinney reviews A Shout in the Ruins, by Kevin Powers, published by Hachette. 

After tackling the Iraqi conflict in Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers' return to print traverses the equally problematic territory of the American Civil War.

At the centre of the story are two households; that of muleteer Bob Reid and his entrepreneurial neighbour Antony Levallois. Joining them are their slaves, Rawls and Nurse, Reid's daughter Emily, and a "dim-witted" boy called John Talbot.

The novel traces their changing fortunes through the conflict, occasionally branching forward in time to follow other connected stories, only to return again to its origin in 1860s Virginia.

Although Powers' novel clearly exposes the casual brutality of the war and the lack of effect that it had on the fortunes of those it supposedly liberated, its primary motive is philosophical rather than historical.

The text is littered with repeated images of mechanisms and machines, chains of cause and effect juxtaposed against random acts that render all predictions of the future useless, and Powers' characters are archetypes through which to explore and express various forms of existential angst.

Reid, whose prosperity is built on the old order, thinks himself a good man because he would be prepared to keep his slaves even if required to pay them. The opportunistic Levallois, a man of the new world, is colour-blind insofar as he treats everybody as a means to an end. Yet despite priding himself for recognising that "the world was changing but ... people were not changing with it", his belief in his own manifest destiny is as delusional as Reid's.

Rawls and Nurse meanwhile see the world clearly but are powerless to change it. It is their job to call out their masters' hypocrisy.

True goodness is exemplified by John, who "accepted the world as it was quite easily, as his mind created no alternatives for improvement or diminishment."

A Shout in the Ruins is not entirely bleak - the spark sustaining its characters is the belief that love can come from less than nothing - but Powers' heavy style and subject matter will discourage a casual audience.

It certainly will leave those who do read with much to think about.

Cushla McKinney is a Dunedin scientist.

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