Janet McAdams, the author of two poetry collections and winner of an American Book Award, tries her hand at fiction with her debut novel, Red Weather.
It has a number of things working in its favor, including some sharp imagery, good use of metaphor and a firm grasp of time—skills that all good poets need. Yet the novel never really succeeds in making the reader truly care about the protagonist or the bevy of characters that appear (or, in some cases, don't appear). As a first novel, it certainly shows its seams, but it has promise that McAdams could carry on into further fiction efforts.
The novel follows its protagonist, Neva Greene, as she leaves an abusive spouse and an unhappy life in Atlanta and makes her way by bus to the invented Central American country of Coatepeque. Neva hopes to find out what has become of her parents, American Indian activists who left her with her grandmother after being involved in a vague crime. While her older brother, Harker, always assumed they were dead, Neva finds a clue that prompts her to head south in hopes of answers.
Throughout the novel, McAdams shifts between several periods in Neva's life: the present day-to-day life in Coatepeque; her life in Atlanta with her husband, Will; her adolescence spent with her grandmother on a farm in Alabama; and times spent with her parents. This is a lot to juggle, especially considering McAdams often shifts between multiple periods in the space of a short chapter. Yet this is one of the author's strengths: Even with all of these shifts in time, the reader never feels confused, as McAdams is adept at giving subtle markers of time and place. Each of the shifts makes sense thematically with what is occurring in the present.
Another strength of McAdams' prose is the poetic sensibility she brings. The novel at times creates a feeling of synesthesia, as McAdams ties together vivid imagery and color with emotions and thoughts, doing so with rhythmic and musical sentences. A scene in which Neva remembers visiting the beach with her parents and brother as a child is brought to life through color imagery and rhythm that lends happiness to the scene as it is read:
The Gulf Coast that started in Mississippi, stretched across Alabama and into the Florida panhandle, as the water grew bluer and the sand whiter. The rental houses wooden on pilings, stocked with scratched Teflon and a huge battered aluminum pot for boiling shrimp.
There are a number of such passages that sound musical and match the mood of the scene at hand. Here, the music of the prose gives readers a sense of almost skipping as they read. These sorts of small details are the hallmarks of a poetic mind and give her prose a depth not always available in fiction.
Yet a piece of prose, especially one the length of a novel, cannot be carried by poetic sensibilities alone. At some point, there needs to be strict attention paid to character and plot, and these are the biggest deficiencies of McAdams' novel. Nearly all of the characters, with the exception of Neva, are given short shrift in development. Neva's husband comes off as one-dimensional, a cardboard caricature of the jerky, abusive husband. There's no sense of history or motive. And while believable in a way, there's nothing particularly fresh or interesting in the relationship. McAdams gives some nice windows into Neva's parents' personalities, but the crime they were supposedly involved with and their motives for leaving are left vague. It could be argued that the intent here was to have the reader discover what Neva discovers as she discovers it, which would have been great had Neva actually discovered anything. Yet by the end of the novel—though the reader has a good idea of what happened to Neva's parents—we still haven't found out what she discovered about them on a trek up to a mysterious, mountainous Quaker village. The ending, during which facts about other characters are "revealed," seems rushed and confused.
This debut novel ends up reading like a debut novel, with parts that shine, and others that don't. However, Janet McAdams has skills that stand out in prose. With honing and deepening in certain areas, she could become a skillful novelist.