“Secrets of the Devil Vine,” by Faith Kaiser

Faith Kaiser

Reviewed by Heather Newcomb

Secrets of the Devil Vine is a homecoming narrative, but the home here is built on greed, secrets and abuse. The main character, Abigail Stewart—whose keen point of view drives the plot—returns home to coastal Alabama to seek answers to difficult questions from her childhood. Abby’s search takes readers on a richly-detailed account of her family and fierce mother Pearl, who is willing to do whatever it takes to succeed in the 1950s American South.

This is largely a story about Abby and Pearl, whose shared responsibilities kept their family together but whose individual experiences broke them apart. The book opens with an introduction to Pearl, now a bitter old woman, and the arrival of Abby, who is intent on confronting her mother and siblings. Pearl feels nothing but scorn for her children. Her life, home and family are effectively in ruin, but she feels “no remorse or regret” for her past actions—she’d done what she had to do to survive, and her kids were nothing but a disappointment to her.

Abby is Pearl’s fourth child and the outcome of a brutal assault by Pearl’s husband—a cruelty that causes Pearl to despise Abby and drives the family to escape to a new, hardscrabble life at the Alabama shore. Abby’s reflections about home and family form the body (and the most vivid, compelling piece) of the novel.

In five-year-old Abby, Faith Kaiser effectively renders a narrator who is observant, deep-feeling and naturally curious about the actions and motivations of her mother, siblings and the parade of friends and enemies in their lives. Abby’s experience and point of view—through the eyes of a child, a smart and observant, if wary, girl who does her best to be and do good amid challenging circumstances—are lively and detailed.

The story unfolds at measured pace before Abby is suddenly, brutally victimized by a friend of the family. This horrific act sets off a chain of events that would test the will and fortitude of any adult, much less a child. The ensuing events have darker, more mysterious elements as Abby and the cast of characters around her toil, scheme and deceive for their own benefit.

Eventually, victims become victors and villains are punished, but as in life, not everything is adequately explained. The book’s ending seems to tee up a sequel, as adult Abby and her husband set out to solve more mysteries about Pearl and her shady dealings.

Kaiser is a gifted writer, and there are passages here that are lyrical and eloquent—e.g., Abby describing Pearl running onto an old friend: “A man of course, thought Abby. Abby watched as Pearl smiled and flirted, twirling her hair around her ringless ring finger.”

Kaiser’s ability to transport the reader to a distinctive time and place, as understood by the strong-willed and sassy Abby, makes this novel engaging and memorable.

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