Of all the authors on the New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40” list, Kentucky-based C.E. Morgan, a Harvard Divinity School grad, appears to be one of the least discussed, at least in online circles. Is it because she uses gender-ambiguous initials in her professional name, thus obscuring herself in an academic-sounding realm? Or is it because her debut novel is impossible to find, tucked away in the review copy section of New York’s Strand Bookstore, but few other places?
Whatever the case, accolades from the New Yorker should certainly help bring more attention to Morgan’s work. While it may be hard to find, Morgan’s debut novel, 2009’s All The Living, is worth seeking out (probably online). Before the New Yorker bestowed it an award of sorts, the book caught the attention of the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Awards, which named the book a 2010 finalist (fellow “20 Under 40” designee Wells Tower was the winner for his story collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned).
The idea behind the book is very simple: a young woman, Aloma, decides to shack up with her lover, Orren, on his family’s farm after a tragedy leaves him in charge. Over the course of a few drought-ridden summer months, Aloma struggles with her sudden decision, questioning her relationship and her ability to adjust to life on a farm with a man she sometimes feels she barely knows at all. What drives her is the desire to know that man better, despite his reticence, his obsession with keeping the farm alive, and his seeming inability to empathize. There is a deep passion between the two, and Morgan renders it so well that we’re able to sympathize with both characters, though they’re so often in opposition to each other.
Morgan’s style is so refreshing that it’s hard to believe she wrote the draft of the novel in two weeks, a fact she relayed in a recent New Yorker interview. She gives her sentences a beautiful, authentic Southern rhythm and uses words in surprising contexts. The latter has the effect of empowering the actions, emotions and landscapes they describe, giving them traits we didn’t think it was possible for them to have––until Morgan told us it was. Anything is possible in fiction, of course, but sometimes we need a book like this to remind us.