There is a hazy, dreamlike feel to “Scribe,” Alyson Hagy’s fourth novel. It is set, most likely, in Reconstruction-era western Virginia, though it could easily share the dystopian novel shelf. We encounter a land of plenty, now given to predation and factionalism; there is no currency, no governmental presence and almost no literacy. This world is one of killing fevers, displaced people, nightmarish militias and occasional miracles.
The novel’s protagonist is an unnamed woman of uncertain age, who transcribes the thoughts of troubled people; in her words, she is “a recorder of the world’s failures” and “a meddler,” generally feared by all around her. Moreover, she is haunted by the death of her older sister, a healer beloved by The Uninvited (a community of homeless people living on their land). Yet unlike the saintly sister, the protagonist is a harder person — envious and damaged — and we learn about her sufferings during wartime. Hagy tells us that she sees through “eyes the color of shed snakeskin.”
The action of “Scribe” turns when she reluctantly contracts with Hendricks, a stranger to the area, to transcribe his confession and deliver it to his hometown. As local feeling against her swells and blood begins to flow, she undertakes a dangerous and hallucination-filled journey to acquit herself of her debt.
Though setting, identity and motivations are shrouded in Blue Ridge mist, Hagy’s language is intense and crisp. What she allows us to see is striking. As the scribe warily strikes a deal with Hendricks, “the crows that roosted among the sour branches of the walnut trees took flight against the sun, their black wings flapping like rags.” In conversation, the two characters circle around one another, grateful for the chance to open up, if just a bit.
Local power in the novel resides in Billy Kingery, who as his name hints at, is a monarch in the making, operating through a system of favors and violence to keep the peace. The scribe, too, must strike a nauseating deal with Billy to gain safe passage on her quest. A combination of omniscience and nastiness, Billy ups the dystopian ante and increases the tense situation the scribe finds herself in.
Can a Southern Reconstruction dystopian novel also make room for supernatural intervention? Apparently so. Hagy does a splendid job of intertwining the strange threads in her novel, and readers with a taste for magical doings will not be disappointed. “Scribe” is ultimately an odd but very engaging mixture of the creepy and the redemptive, with a resolution that dispels the murkiness in a clever and startling way.
Tom Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.
By: Alyson Hagy.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 157 pages, $16.
Events: 7 p.m. Nov. 9, Milkweed Bookstore, 1011 Washington Av. S., Mpls.;
11 a.m. Nov. 10, with Christina Dalcher, Leif Enger and Kristina McMorris, Hazeltine Golf Club, $35 includes lunch, call 952-401-0932 or visit Excelsior Bay Books, Excelsior;
2 p.m. Nov. 11, The Community Thread, 2300 Orleans St. W., Stillwater, with Christina Dalcher, Leif Enger and Kristina McMorris, $11, call 651-430-3385 or visit Valley Bookseller, Stillwater.