James Agee's, A Death in the Family, sent chills up and down my spine when I read it the first time as a teenager. Agee painstakingly describes each family members' reaction to the death of a loved one, but mostly related the point of view of Rufus, the son, who loses his father. Never in a hurry to rush narrative or character, Agee demands a patience from the reader to stick with this fictionalized, yet autobiographical account, of his own father's death in a car accident when Agee was a child. Death in the Family, published posthumously, won the Pulitzer as Agee died before totally completing the novel.
As I delved into A. Manette Ansay's 1994 debut novel, Vinegar Hill, I thought about Agee's novel -- the same slow telling -- the careful prose --- but this time, the death of a loved one -- is perhaps the death of self. Set in 1972, Ellen Grier finds herself disappointed in her marriage and unhappy with her new set of circumstances -- living with her in-laws, a couple of misfits with an ugly and tragic past -- and an damning secret kept for forty years.
Ansay throws punches -- hard, life ones --- as she lays out Ellen's husband abusive childhood and the equally disturbing loveless relationship between her husband's parents, both from tough backgrounds where farm work and the rigidness of their Catholic upbringing meld for some rather bizarre behavior and unfathomable violent outcomes. Living with her two children and husband with her in-laws where she is under constant criticism, Ellen hardly holds it together. With her in-laws address on "Vinegar Hill," the use of vinegar as the street name is no accident -- this is a bitter, sour house full of anger, resentment, lies, secrets, and despair. As Ellen notes late in the novel, "within those walls, [I] am the piece that doesn't fit, the doll without a task."
Vinegar Hill held my attention, but as one reviewer puts it, "Lovely prose, but only for those who can stomach the content."
I barely did "stomach it," but Ansay kept me there for Ellen, cheering her and hoping that she would make the decision best for her, best for her family.