Reviewed by Jordan Murphy
The Marble Orchard is author Alex Taylor’s first novel and second major work, alongside his 2010 collection of short stories, The Name of the Nearest River. The Marble Orchard tells the tale of Beam, a young Kentucky boy of nineteen who finds himself wrapped up in a tangle of family history and deceit, all sparked by an accident one fateful night on the local ferry. This novel is a hard-hitting, dark thriller with deep Southern roots.
The prologue supplies ample reason to empathize with Beam—he’s the black sheep of his seemingly infamous family, standing out with bright blond hair among his dark-haired Cherokee family. Beam’s father, Clem, tells him that “[others] don’t like to associate with folks who run a ferryboat for a living.” It’s thus clear from the beginning that things are not easy for Beam.
The opening chapter takes place on the ferryboat, and the story gains momentum as Beam finds himself at the epicenter of the town’s latest controversy, a conflict that leads to an exhilarating journey and a dark mystery. As each chapter passes, more questions arise as some are answered, and the reader is left hanging on for new details, trying to understand the magnitude of the history underlying this Kentucky tale. Beam is on the run. He’s not aware of what all is chasing him.
Taylor casts a range of characters and describes them briefly in physical detail but completely with backstory. Derna, Daryl, Loat, and other figures come to life through detailed description; heavy dialogue does not define their personalities.
The dialogue in The Marble Orchard is short and concise, pregnant with Southern colloquialisms, and it bears hidden morals and tidbits of advice. “Don’t throw no punches unless it’s worth a good amount of dough,” Beam’s father Clem would say. Some characters are brutally honest; others simply won’t take “no” for an answer.
The Marble Orchard is as entertaining as it is dark; it’s filled with subtly poetic prose. Taylor casually mentions, for instance, that luminous space “where the moonlight rode jagged and broken on the river like mishandled glass.” He describes a bird’s wings as “glinting with blue-black iridescence,” an unforgettable phrase.
Beam learns something new about his family, his past, and himself over a weeklong journey. Will he be forced to surrender or make an escape from his complicated past? Therein lies the mystery and adventure.
The Marble Orchard has received substantial praise, having two starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. Gallmeister is producing a French version of the novel this fall. Taylor is from Rosine, Kentucky, and has taught creative writing at Western Kentucky University. He holds an MFA from the University of Mississippi and is currently working on his third novel.
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