Lisa Howorth’s Flying Shoes is really interesting, a small, finely wrought piece of Southern Gothic, with outrageous, slightly grotesque, decadent and fascinating characters. There are well-known tropes of black/white discomfort/comfort, the still lively memories and hoarded resentments of the War of Northern Aggression, the catastrophe and shame of slavery, the importance of the family place, both physical and in the complex social hierarchy, all mixed with the oddly hostile gallantry of the men and the bitter-sweet watchfulness of the women in the oppressive heat or icy storms of this history-heavy country.
Howorth spins all these themes in the air admirably, and brings a fresh voice to their consideration. Just because they have been written about before doesn’t mean that these are not real factors, shaping – distorting even – real lives. This is a quietly original take on the genre, and the characters are also finely-drawn, not caricatures, they hum with urgent reality.
It is the story of Mary Byrd Thornton, a wife and mother who is contacted by the police to say they are re-opening the cold case of the murder of her 8 year-old step-brother 30 years before. Mary Byrd has grieved for Stevie for a long time and also grieved for what the horrible event did to her family. She has to return home to meet with her family and discover what the police have to say, and needs to find a way to do so without flying, which scares her.
Howorth is the cofounder of the legendary Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, this is her first work of fiction. The long-ago murder in the book is based on the still-unsolved case of Howorth’s stepbrother, a front page story in the Washington Post in 1966. It isn’t really a mystery story but about the life Mary Byrd has created for herself, and the people she surrounds herself with. There is desperate sadness in the book, but its also very funny. The writing is really good, and I was surprised by how much I cared when one of the cast suddenly dies – in fact you end up wondering about what the various characters do next, after the last page. I am curious to see what Howorth writes next.