All the Living
It doesn’t take much of a search to learn that All the Living by C. E. Morgan has been very well-reviewed. The story itself is simple: girl and boy meet; event pushes them toward a commitment neither of them had thought through; life gets rough and someone thinks about finding a way out; a certain kind of intimate conversation between girl and boy becomes possible as a result of the difficulties they learn to endure together.
But for all the simplicity of the basic story, there is a kind of fresh music in the characters’ names: Aloma, Orren, and Bell. The names sound improbably foreign to my contemporary, urban ears. It is possible that I don’t typically think about my own urbanity until some shock moves me to confront myself. This novel was just such a shock.
I’ve lived in the Midwest—along the very same Great Lake, in fact—all my life. Hills—real ones—are exciting and exotic to me, but mountains, I realize, are the stuff of fairy tales. Mountains are an event, a vacation, a dreamworld, an aberration. A mountain could only be wonderful or terrifying. There is nothing mundane—to me—about a mountain.
To Aloma, the mountains are stifling and oppressive. Indeed, they are almost as much a character in the novel as the humans who live within them. Aloma dreams of flat land and a sky that meets the horizon. She dreams of days that are longer than the mountains’ peaks permit. It is amazing that the flatness of my own geographical reality could be someone else’s dream.
Morgan’s book evokes such a strong sense of place that I felt disoriented for the duration of my reading. Aloma’s experiences resisted me: I couldn’t imagine what it was like to be her. I couldn’t imagine what my own reactions would have been. I couldn’t even imagine what it must feel like to feel burdened by topography. In short, I was jolted from a comfortably narcissistic reading practice and could only (only!) try to understand Aloma, Orren, and Bell as separate characters, utterly distinct from me.
Perhaps this reveals me to be—generally—a “bad” reader: one who feels comfortable and relaxed with familiarity and disoriented and alert when confronted with the unfamiliar. Perhaps, too, it explains the number of negative reviews of Morgan’s novels: a surprising number of readers complained that “nothing happens.” But it also speaks to the subtle power of Morgan’s writing. She has created characters and situations that resist readerly co-option and a place that insists on its particularity. The effect was wonderful, and I can’t wait to reread this book and to read more by her in the future.