“Marantha Road,” by Heather Bell Adams

Heather Bell Adams

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

Marantha Road is an exquisite story with characters so real they could step off the pages into your living room. All the strengths and flaws of small town life are laid bare. The worry over how others will judge you. The importance of the church in the community. The complicated bonds within a family.

Heather Bell Adams’s poignant debut novel begins with an accident that leaves sixteen-year-old Tinley Greene an orphan. Her parents’ car slid down a muddy embankment in the North Carolina mountains, where “the hungry mouth of the river” opens “wider and wider until it swallows them up.”  The story opens with a bang, but may well close with a whimper—yours—the story is really that moving.

The other prominent viewpoint character, Sadie Caswell, behaves in such an aloof and brusque manner, she is somewhat reminiscent of Olive Kitteridge, the titular character that earned a Pulitzer for Elizabeth Strout. The portrait Adams draws of Sadie is just as fine and unforgettable.

Sadie’s son Mark remains unlabeled by the author, but his mother’s descriptions suggest he is bipolar:

Sometimes he laughed at any little thing that happened, the kind of laugh somebody across the room would notice. And other days, he moved slowly, like he was underwater. The way I see it, people will do just about anything they can for their children, but when Mark got like that, there was nothing Clive or I could do to pull him up.

Even though Sadie knows in her heart that all is not well with her twenty-two-year-old son, she has grown defensive when others, like his teachers, have suggested he has problems. However, she did take him to a doctor, who pronounced him healthy. Now that Mark is engaged to Maddie Spencer, the pretty new girl in town, Sadie dares to hope everything will be all right. How wrong she is becomes apparent when Mark tells her he can’t see how he’s “messed up this big.” She brushes off his reservations as a case of cold feet before the wedding. Soon after, a neighbor calls Sadie to report that Mark is out on a bridge, “pacing around and shaking his head.” Only then does Sadie understand the depth of Mark’s despair, envisioning the “long dizzy drop to the ground below.”

The early chapters deliver these convincing portraits of two women from different generations who have experienced devastating losses. Their differing responses to grief flesh out the remainder of the book. Tinley latches onto others in her desperation to have someone—anyone—in the world who cares for her. Sadie, in contrast, pushes her husband Clive away: “We couldn’t talk about it. There just wasn’t a way.” She flees to her sister Libby’s home, where she becomes a recluse, refusing to accept comfort from her husband, her sister, or the community. Although it’s easy to empathize with Sadie’s grief, it’s much harder to accept her abandonment of her husband when he is wasting away without her. With a mother’s blind and fierce love, Sadie is unwilling to admit that her son had long experienced emotional problems, in part because she then will blame herself for not pushing harder to get him help. It is far easier to blame Tinley, who showed up on the bridge crying after Mark jumped. Sadie is sure Tinley chased Mark and wouldn’t leave him alone—why, her son could never have betrayed his fiancée! Even though Tinley pleads for Sadie’s help after Mark’s death, Sadie turns her away, too.

Long before the book’s end, readers will know these two grief-stricken women must come together to find forgiveness and redemption. Knowing such an ending must come only heightens the catharsis of the moment when it is rendered at last.

Adams crafts an intriguing symbol from the gemstones mined in those mountains. Garnet is the name of the town as well as an unpolished gem Sadie has kept in a pillowcase. At the novel’s end, she shows this garnet to her granddaughter and proclaims, “You can see how dark it is. . . . You’d think there was no color in it, not until the light hits it right.” That garnet serves as the novel’s heart: the struggle to find the light even in the darkest times.

Originally from Hendersonville, North Carolina, Heather Bell Adams now lives in Raleigh with her husband and son. She has published short fiction in The Thomas Wolfe Review, Clapboard House, Pembroke Magazine, Broad River Review, First Stop Fiction, Deep South Magazine, Appalachian StoryGravel, and elsewhere. She won the 2016 James Still Fiction Prize and the 2017 Carrie McCray Memorial Literary Award and was named the Emerging Writing Fellow for the inaugural Laughing Heart Literary Festival. A graduate of Duke University and Duke University School of Law, her legal practice focuses on financial services litigation.

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