“Lisbeth,” by Marina Brown

Marina Brown

Reviewed by Claire Matturro

As with her stunning debut novel, Land Without Mirrors, Marina Brown has, with her newest book, Lisbeth, plumbed the emotional truths of diverse and conflicting characters as they struggle through chaos, peril, and change.

Lisbeth is a big, bold, intense, and intensely complex Southern Gothic, with lyrical writing, lushly described settings, and characters who will often confuse, sometimes repel, and frequently charm, drawing you into their innermost minds. Crafted as a troubled morality tale, Lisbeth is marked by deft touches of humor, multiple layers of mystery, a dark brooding center and the overriding theme of redemption.

The myriad characters are complex, their stories interwoven so that the seemingly random plot-lines come together in the end.

The title character, the enigmatic Lisbeth, appears mostly in flashback scenes dating to the 1920s and 30s, though a spectral Lisbeth drives the story in the here and now. Whether flashback or ethereal, Lisbeth dominates the tale as her influence casts dark shadows over the mysteriously tangled black and white families in a small southern town.

Lisbeth’s daughter, Claire Ellison, is an unfulfilled, single banker, keenly aware of the passage of time and her youth, who is attempting to rebuild Lisbeth’s house in the woods of Mississippi. Digging about the grounds, Claire finds a locket with a German flower, unearths memories that appear random at first but begin to coalesce, and seems to disturb a spirit that never found rest.

Claire has an indefinable relationship with Hanny Meyers, a powerful and wealthy older man, who is her friend, protector, mentor—and somewhat of a lover, though not in any ordinary way. Hanny, a WWII veteran, is a complicated figure, haunted by his choices in life and aching to correct some of his sins. He is married to one of the two evil characters in the book, and the why and wherefore of their marriage is an intriguing mysteries.

Big Daddy Charlie Ellison, Claire’s grandfather and Lisbeth’s father, is the other evil character. Driven by power, lust and hatred, the man has casually destroyed others’ lives. Now aged and near the end of his life, Big Daddy doesn’t seek to make amends or find forgiveness. Rather, he plans to force his bigoted will on others, even if from the grave. It’s a bold move that Brown calls one of the characters Big Daddy, as Tennessee Williams has nearly preempted the moniker. But Brown’s character earns the right to use his name, and his unique character will not be easily forgotten.

A black preacher, Eustus, and Claire’s black secretary, Starlight, all have secret ties to Claire, Hanny, and Big Daddy. Their tangled connections are rooted in a violent past, including an attempted rape, a murder, a failed lynching, and, yes, love.

Some situations in Lisbeth are harsh, even brutal. And though never graphic, there is more than a hint of sexual perversion. But this too is a part of the classic Southern Gothic. No matter how much genteel Southerners might like to deny the prevalence of the perverse in great Southern novels, ever since Faulkner and the corncob, it’s a common element of our literature.

Though there are undeniably harsh aspects of the story, Brown’s writing is never remotely so. Her language is as poetry. Take, for example, the following excerpt from a scene in which the old white man, Hanny, and the old black man, Eustus, confront each other again after too long a time.

The congregation was turning to each other with questioning looks, as Eustus began to make his way down the aisle toward Hanny. The old cleric stopped just in front of him and, reaching his bony hands down to audaciously hold Hanny’s face, Eustus spoke directly and so quietly that only the nearest-by heard him.

“We both lived over lots of sorrow…talked one way and walked another for a time, but you did do the right thing, man. Don’t let nobody tell you you didn’t…And I have tried to live the life you gave me back as close to God as I was that very night. And I thank you.”

Hanny slumped into the pew, black hands laying along his shoulder and reaching out to stroke his back. They swayed him to and fro, and he felt something like water flooding him with—perhaps love. And as the crowd sang around him, Hanny remember the night he had saved Eustus’s life and in the doing, sent his own in a direction from which he would never return.

All is not dark and mysterious in Lisbeth. There’s sly humor when Claire’s friend, who runs a failing bed and breakfast, plans to finance her inn repairs. She wants a bank loan to start a brothel—but for women of a certain age. Her prim clients, she’s calculated, will be happy to pay for the discreet services of robust, young men while they’re ostensibly at the grocery store or beauty parlor.

More meaningful and life-changing for Claire is the appearance of a charming German doctor who comes to town looking for his father’s lost past—and perhaps who will provide Claire’s last chance at love. The German’s connection to the town is the missing piece that will bind the layers of mystery together.

Lisbeth is classic Southern Gothic: Naming a character Big Daddy alone would denote that, but there’s also the otherworldly “presence,” a vicious secret in the dark past, overlays of family connections, and the interwoven lives of black and white characters. Yet there’s nothing cliché about this book.

As the past is slowly revealed in dramatic flashbacks, its relevancy to the present comes into sharp focus. As Faulkner quipped, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Nothing conveys this truth quite like a well-written Southern Gothic tale.

Brown recently won the prestigious President’s Gold Medal for Literary Fiction awarded by the Florida Authors and Publishers Association (FAPA). She won a Gold Medal in General Fiction from FAPA for her first novel, Land Without Mirrors, which is being re-released by Southern Yellow Pine in the near future. Hers is a career to watch.

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