Released early this summer, Rachel Keener’s third novel is a rainstorm in spring, building up to the kind of book you’ll sit on the porch reading through the night.
Every sentence sings in Pearl Weaver’s Epic Apology, as beautiful language and imagery collide with grit and determination through the voice of a young girl.
This incredible voice rings true throughout the novel and introduces the reader to a rich collection of characters that feel remarkably real. Not least of these is Pearl herself for, as she gets to know the people she encounters, the reader gets to know her.
It is abundantly clear from the beginning that Pearl Weaver isn’t like other kids. The daughter of a Southern writer and professor, Pearl Weaver is a born storyteller. But she doesn’t just tell stories, she lives them. She dances in fields of flowers with Persephone, she shares the hardships of Jane Eyre, and she revels in the vibrant history of her family come alive in her father’s stories and her own imagination. To Pearl, “stories were fire and passion and electricity. They were sunsets and storms …” Rachel Keener’s novel is, among other things, a book about writing. It touches briefly on the “how to’s” of the creative act, but more than that it strives to display them and to show, just as Pearl discovers, that stories belong to everyone.
The Weaver family’s elderly housekeeper, Loretta, worried that Pearl’s past might catch up with her at a new school, and decides that Pearl needs more than books to keep her company. She needs a girl her own age to teach her how to be “normal.” Pearl and Katie form a hesitant and unlikely friendship: the bookworm who makes stories come alive and the cheerleader who dreams of Alaska. An unexpected loss leaves Pearl dazed and searching, and though she finds temporary solace in a beloved character from literature, Pearl’s troubles drive her to the furthest reaches of the continent before she can find her way home again.
Interspersed with Pearl’s story, at times its events almost paralleling her own, is the unlikely history of her great grandfather, Abel Weaver. Forced to distance himself from his family at a young age, Abel gives himself a new name and builds a new identity amongst the machines of the cotton mill where he works. Caught between his high ranking position at the mill and love, Abel takes a leap of faith that will change the course of the Weaver family forever.
Keener’s novel touches on so many elements of Southern culture that it is almost difficult to keep track of them all: the tension between wealthy and poor, complex and varied views of faith, the nature of success, identity (or as Pearl and her father call it, one’s setting), even the importance of different foods as indicative of our cultural identity. From the banks of the Yadkin to the frozen north, Keener deftly keeps all of these plates spinning and brings them down again without a scratch.
By novel’s end, her difficulties are far from over, but Pearl determines to face them head-on and maybe, just maybe, find a little redemption too. The novel’s conclusion is at once frustrating and satisfying. Keener leaves Pearl’s fate wreathed in ambiguity, but her final words are delivered with a wink and a smile. Like Pearl, the reader must have faith that, no matter what happens next, all is well.
Pearl Weaver’s Epic Apology is indeed an epic, as Pearl embarks on a hero’s journey to find her way home again. Epics are firmly rooted in oral tradition and are often used to form a sense of national identity. Though Pearl’s story is not an epic in the traditional sense, it draws from the region’s rich oral history. With every beautifully lilting sentence, Keener has written an epic for the South.