September Read of the Month: “Loving the Dead and Gone,” by Judith Turner-Yamamoto

Judith Turner-Yamamoto’s debut novel Loving the Dead and Gone (Regal House, September 2022) is a 2020 Petrichor Prize finalist. There’s more than one aching heart in this excellent story exploring the generational effects of love, loss, betrayal, and redemption.

The story opens with middle-aged Clayton finding a young man’s body after someone smashed into the back end of his car. Clayton’s discovery changes his life in ways he never could have imagined. It causes him to take stock of his life, his marriage. And of great importance, it introduces him to the young man’s seventeen-year-old widow, the flamboyant Darlene.

Loving the Dead and Gone delves into the inner lives and history of numerous characters, offering points of view from Clayton, Clayton’s wife Berta Mae, her mother Aurilla, Aurilla’s  husband Joe, Aurilla’s best friend Louellen, and of course, the young widow Darlene. Ahhhh! A tangled tale with many intriguing layers. The fun for readers is untangling the web of secrets and betrayals to reveal the source of characters’ personality traits.

Clayton’s wife Berta Mae “never looks at what she has, just at what she thinks she ought to have, and that’s a big part of what makes her so miserable.” Because his wife is closed off emotionally, Clayton is miserable too. The discovery of Donald Ray’s body cuts deeply into Clayton, and the state of his marriage makes him vulnerable as he begins to share Darlene’s grief: “Tears streamed down my face, for Donald Ray and all he had lost, for Darlene, for me and the deep loneliness of my marriage.”

Married less than a year to Donald Ray and still in the passionate early stages of love, Darlene feels her life is over: “She just wanted to be ten again, to not know about death and loss and change. What was left for her? Losing her parents, her own death?” In some confused way, Darlene projects her feelings for Donald Ray onto Clayton.

Clayton’s is not the only empty marriage in this tale. His mother-in-law Aurilla also mourns her husband’s emotional distance. She admits right off she doesn’t know if she ever really liked him, but when she first meets him, she thinks “If he was tangled up inside, then [she] was the one to unravel him.” Eventually, she seeks an affair to fulfill her need for love and connection, with long term repercussions, not only for her own life, but also for her daughter Berta Mae.

The reader knows better than to worry about Darlene. She is young and will rebound eventually from her grief. Already, “All the images of Donald Ray she once held in her mind had faded. When she thought of him now, she only saw photographs.” She will rebuild her life.

The larger question at the center of the story is what will become of those who spend years drowning in unhappy marriages. Will they trudge onward in misery? Will they leave, hoping to find happiness elsewhere? Or will they try one more time to open the hearts of their spouses, the people who have become “family by default”?

Loving the Dead and Gone is the first novel in a planned trilogy set in Gold Ridge and Potter, fictional towns deep in North Carolina’s red-dirt heart.

Judith Turner-Yamamoto

Judith Turner-Yamamoto grew up in rural North Carolina in a small mill town. An art historian, her work has appeared in StorySOUTHMississippi Review, Snake Nation Review, and American Literary Review. Her awards include two Virginia Arts Commission fellowships, an Ohio Arts Council fellowship, VCCA and Fundación Valparaiso fellowship residencies, the Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize, the Washington Prize for Fiction, and the Virginia Screenwriting Award. She has taught fiction at the Chautauqua Writers’ Center, Chautauqua Institution, the Danville Writer’s Conference, and the Writers’ Center, Bethesda, Maryland. She lives in Cincinnati, OH, with her husband, visual artist Shinji Turner-Yamamoto.


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