May Read of the Month: “The Tender Grave,” by Sheri Reynolds

Sheri Reynolds

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

The Tender Grave, by Sheri Reynolds, not only offers interesting characters and strong imagery, but it also builds an unusual level of tension and suspense for a literary novel. Witness this early passage:

She hadn’t been to bed, not all night, and though she’d brushed her teeth before she left, her mouth already tasted stale. She suspected it might taste that way forever, whether she brushed or gargled again or not: her new reality, her life the flavor of bile.

Reynolds tantalizes readers with graphic sensory detail, encouraging us—no, demanding that we read on to discover what has put seventeen-year-old Dori in this state. Little by little, details emerge. Bullying. Cracked ribs. A bloody beating Dori took part in that left a gay teen in a coma.

Dori is not your typical protagonist. She is not particularly admirable. In fact, the more we learn, the more we become appalled by her actions. Yet such is Reynolds’ gift as a writer that we never lose sight of Dori’s humanity. We realize with a similar upbringing, we might find ourselves wandering down the same path. As Dori points out, the “best you could hope for was to be born big and powerful.” And if not, to have good parents, the kind who protect and nurture you. Dori’s mother, Hilda, is not that kind of parent. She is an artist who creates bizarre, violent sculptures with scripture verses attached. Dori believes Hilda is “insane,” a label that seems justified by her mother’s pattern of alternating drug abuse and child neglect with religious fanaticism, a mental state reflected in her disturbing art. Reynolds could have just told us Hilda lies, but instead delivers this achingly beautiful image through Dori’s observations: “All her mom’s stories were tattered; moths had eaten holes in them. You could fall right through.” Despite her mother’s flaws, Dori misses her and wishes “she could crawl into her lap.”

On the run with nowhere else to go, Dori seeks out a half-sister she has never met. The only clue she has is an old address she saw years ago on an envelope sent to their shared mother. Dori’s journey takes her to a small North Carolina town where she befriends Randy, a seven-year-old she encounters on the beach. As we observe her treating him with respect, really listening to his incessant chattering, our opinion of her improves. Only to be dashed again when she steals from Randy’s grandmother. Reynolds also paints Dori into a disgustingly unromantic sex scene. The contradictions inherent in Dori’s character continue to emerge throughout the novel.

Quite the talker, the boy Randy shares his most precious secret with Dori. He claims that before he was born he was wearing a pair of magic flip-flops that could transport him from one place to another. They fell off during birth, but he still remembers them. The story appeals to Dori in ways the boy can’t even imagine, a way to escape the disastrous consequences of her actions:

If she had magic flip-flops, she’d leap into another time, not this lifetime at all. She’d spring out of her body and into a different body, a different life.

Late in the novel, Dori’s mother also expresses she could try out a different life, walk down a different path. Both mother and daughter realize their choices have resulted in poor outcomes.

A central irony in the story is that Teresa, the half-sister Dori is searching for, unbeknownst to her, is a lesbian. Teresa and her wife Jen are appealing characters, who take Dori in, despite the trouble she manages to find wherever she goes. Both Teresa and Jen are nurturing people, illustrated by Teresa’s career as a teacher and by the couple’s loving caretaking of Sugar Britches, their cat. The beloved pet is slowly dying from cancer. Also illustrating the couple’s desire to nurture is their quest to conceive a child of their own. Teresa is undergoing artificial insemination, a process that provides some of the strongest emotional scenes of the novel—and also, surprisingly, some of the humor. The procedure itself, graphically described, was groan-out-loud funny at times. Yet Reynolds perfectly captures the intense desire to conceive and the heartbreak of repeated failures. Complicating their quest is Teresa’s concern that any child conceived might inherit its grandmother’s insanity. Alert readers will pick up on a subtle hint that disturbing visions run in the family when both Dori and Teresa experience hallucinations of people as the infants they once were.

Beautifully written, The Tender Grave is not the story of a murdered gay teenager. Instead, the novel explores the motivations behind such a heinous act. It asks if any child—yours or mine—can become a bully—or be bullied. Dori can be thoughtful and tender, yet her actions were also as deadly as the honeysuckle vines strangling the crepe myrtles that she takes note of: “It seemed strange and sad that something as tender as honeysuckle could also be deadly.” It also seems strange that Dori, at times quite likeable, could be so cruel and even downright vicious.

Virginia novelist Sheri Reynolds is best known for her Oprah Book Club selection and New York Times #1 bestseller, The Rapture of Canaan. Reynolds is also the author of Bitterroot Landing, A Gracious Plenty, Firefly Cloak, The Homespun Wisdom of Myrtle T. Cribb, and The Sweet In-Between. She teaches creative writing and literature at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA, where she serves as the Ruth and Perry Morgan Chair of Southern Literature.

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