Tara Saint-Romain has had her childhood stolen from her. She lives with her mother in a dilapidated and depressing home in Terrrefine, Louisiana. Her mother, Joan, is an alcoholic, a drug addict, mentally unfit to be a parent and is probably the child in their relationship.
And now, thanks to an oil and gas company, Mid-South, Terrefine has a sinkhole—and Tara’s home is right in the center of it. But this cloud might have a silver lining, pending the results of a class-action lawsuit against Mid-South. Tara could end up with enough money to afford college and escape the helpless situation she’s been placed in.
But Joan’s erratic and irresponsible behavior threatens to jeopardize the entire town’s future, leaving Tara with an impossible decision. Does she abandon her mother and seek a better future, or does she continue to support her and succumb to the real sinkhole, her mother’s reckless decisions?
Rebecca Baum, a Louisiana native, uses her intimate understanding of the rural South to paint an unapologetically ugly picture of life for the impoverished in her debut novel Lifelike Creatures.
Lifelike Creatures dives headfirst into the frustrating nature of unconditional love. Joan is quite possibly one of the worst mothers a child could have and stands between Tara and her hopes for a better future. Nevertheless, Tara continues to support her, even when her mother obstructs her way to a better life.
Baum puts her strong character-building skills on full display with Tara. Readers will feel like they understand and empathize with Tara almost immediately. Near the beginning of the book, Tara befriends a couple of boys named Louis and Gerard. The three start to become close, and she even has a romantic encounter with Gerard. But not long after, the two brothers completely betray her trust by setting her bicycle on fire in a spontaneous act of cruelty.
This incident serves as the perfect metaphor for Tara’s relationship with her mother. Tara is constantly giving Joan her love and support, but in return, Joan gets arrested, publicly humiliates herself and Tara on a regular basis and places the town’s lawsuit in jeopardy with her stupid and reckless behavior.
Terrefine’s sinkhole crisis combined with her mother’s poor parenting skills leaves Tara alone facing stressful situations that even an adult would struggle with. And the reader is sure to empathize with Tara’s pain.
But even with Joan being as deplorable as she is, Baum helps the reader understand her perspective too. She’s had a tough life to say the least, with an abusive childhood and the only reason she ever got married was because her father bet her in a poker game.
While the book is written in the third-person, Baum changes perspectives between Tara and Joan every few chapters to help the reader better relate to the two main characters.
Through Baum’s clear and concise style, she effectively communicates how helpless Tara and Joan’s situation is, and, by extension, the helplessness of the impoverished who rest under the foot of corporate corruption and greed.
While Lifelike Creatures may seem dark and depressing—and in many ways it is—it is also heartwarming.
Characters like Mrs. Honore offer a welcome change of pace for this otherwise grim tale. Honore is always there to support Joan and Tara even when Joan is being difficult, and her warm, motherly personality emits a sense of comfort.
And, without spoiling too much, other characters enter the picture, who start to give Tara hope for a better future, one that isn’t tied to her mother.
Tara and Joan’s relationship isn’t all bad either. You can tell the two care deeply for each other, despite their rocky existence.
The end of Lifelike Creatures is bittersweet, but Tara gets what she needs for a decent future.