“Cherry Bomb,” by Susan Cushman

Susan Cushman

Reviewed by Niles Reddick

Cherry Bomb is Susan Cushman’s first novel, but it doesn’t read like a debut novel. It reads like the work of a master.

Cushman is no novice. Her previous books include an excellent and thoughtful work of non-fiction, Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s, and the edition A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be, which consists of essays by women authors.

Cherry Bomb is a complex narrative that switches points of view while holding your attention and keeping you moving from page to page. It deserves a literary prize.

Like Southern writers Caldwell and O’Connor before her, Cushman gives us a glimpse of the grotesque in humanity as manifest in a Georgia setting.

The plot goes something like this.

Mare is a teenager who has been sexually abused by her father, a self-proclaimed minister in a rural cult in Macon, Georgia.  Before a mass suicide in which her two brothers die, she escapes with her drug-addicted mother only to be deposited with Children’s Services.  She’s placed on a farm with an alcoholic farmer and his wife. Here she remains captive for some time and is repeatedly raped by the alcoholic farmer.

Mare escapes and lives on the streets of Macon, becoming a graffiti artist whose talent is recognized by a visiting photographer.  With the help of her community, she finishes her GED and then lands a scholarship to Savannah College of Art and Design, where she studies under the highly talented and acclaimed New York artist Elaine de Kooning. They develop a friendship that meets both of their needs and discover they have more in common than they ever imagined.

Throughout the story, readers learn about art, religious iconography, and history, both personal and artistic.  Life comes full circle as Mare returns to help others as she had been helped. One character reveals that life itself is the highest form of art that can be mastered only by experiencing all of it, the positive and negative.

Conveying this lesson through Mare and other characters in Cherry Bomb, Cushman offers readers their own form of salvation, a narrative about how to act and think better than those who have inflicted wrongs against you. Even if your life is tough, you can overcome, even thrive, and then give back to others.

Cherry Bomb is a must read. There are many surprises here; readers will be pleased, I think, when unresolved conflicts are resolved.  We may not be any more comfortable about the pressing social issues portrayed in this book, but Cushman offers some hope.

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