Thursday, November 12, 2009

Book Review - Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron

Synopsis: First published to overwhelming acclaim in 1951, Lie Down in Darkness is the novel that established William Styron as a writer of international stature. It is a brooding, rhapsodic, sometimes searing portrait of a Southern family in extremis: Milton Loftis, a man of great charm and infinite weakness; Helen Loftis, who has given all her frustrated love to their crippled daughter, Maudie; and Peyton Loftis, adored by her father, loathed by her mother, and ultimately destroyed by that mixed inheritance.

First Line: "Riding down to Port Warwick from Richmond, the train begins to pick up speed on the outskirts of the city, past the tobacco factories with their ever-present haze of acrid, sweetish dust and past the rows of uniformly brown clapboard houses which stretch down the hilly streets for miles, it seems, the hundreds of rooftops all reflecting the pale light of dawn; past the suburban roads still sluggish and sleepy with early morning traffic, and rattling swiftly now over the bridge which separates the last two hills where in the valley below you can see the James River winding beneath its acid-green crust of scum out beside the chemical plants and more rows of clapboard houses and into the woods beyond."

Random Quote: "She had come to him six years ago, he remembered, on a rainy Sunday night in October when the leaves of sycamores lay upon the rectory lawn in drenched disordered piles and a gathering wind, blowing in chill and premonitory gusts from the river, had made him think wistfully of a new furnace and despairingly of his God who, he had prayed, would reveal Himself finally this year and preferably before Advent. It was a season for him of self-searching and vague, amorphous sorrows."

Review: I recently managed to make it all the way through Sophie's Choice, a book I had attempted to read in college and hadn't had the maturity to finish. I loved it on my recent read so I thought I should return to Lie Down in Darkness, another book I hadn't been able to complete.

Dovima age 26 in a black silk dressDovima, age 26 - Image by dovima_the_devine via Flickr

This is a very good, if not great, novel. It is also very depressing. I remember it being so depressing that I just couldn't get through it the first time (and my memory was good). All the same, the writing is beautiful and the characterizations clear and sad. In a sense, this novel is a lyrical essay on Tolstoy's quote about unhappy families from Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

The novel opens on Peyton Loftis' body returning to her family on the train from New York after her suicide. Styron ranges back and forth in time and point of view throughout the novel in presenting the causes of Peyton's depression and suicide.

Peyton Loftis is the template for a particular kind of doomed Southern girl - beautiful with Daddy issues and a dozen bad habits, the kind of girl certain kinds of boys fall in love with but never marry. She is in some ways a very old-fashioned character - very much of her own generation. Reading her will make you grateful that our mothers' generation fought the feminist battles and gave us options beyond attending Sweet Briar and marrying the first fraternity boy that crossed our path. I think it's a wonder more intelligent and creative women didn't cut their own throats in the public square out of sheer boredom.

I'd like to say that all the changes in the status of women in the last 50 or so years have made the Peyton Loftises of the world obsolete, but that would be untrue. There are still plenty of boxes for both women and men to be confined to and political and societal change don't necessarily eliminate them.

I'm glad I made it through this one this time. It is, as I said, a good novel. I can strongly relate to all the flavors of despair that Styron depicts and truly felt the presence of his own depression throughout the novel. Styron is wonderfully flamboyant with language and character, even when weighed down with his own demons.
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1 comment:

  1. DAMN YOU, STYRON! I want to read this so back but I can't deal with depressing. Sophie's Choice is a book that haunts me even now--and not in a good way. And I'm from Virginia, so I really, really want to like Styron, but don't quite dare.

    Great review, though, as usual. I really got a sense of *why* this book would not be right for me. :)


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