Mudbound, the first novel by Hillary Jordan, is all about tension. Race, family, marriage, class, identity are all buzzing, pressing in the narrative, and all of them feed into the greatest tension of all: the classic survival story of man versus nature.
The first few pages describe two brothers scrambling to dig a makeshift grave ahead of an impending storm. This scene sets the tone and becomes, in many ways, a vivid metaphor for the entire narrative. The characters are constantly battling to stay one step ahead of the novel’s tragic but inevitable conclusion.
Henry McAllan, a man bent on making a living out of a scrap of land, moves his wife, their two young daughters, and his elderly father from their home in Memphis to a farm on the Mississippi Delta. Laura, Henry’s wife and the main narrator, feels dismayed and demoralized by every aspect of farm life—from the shack that the family lives in, to their strong-willed black sharecropping family, to Henry’s preferential love of the land she hates. Worst of all is Henry’s bigoted, cantankerous father who makes the family’s life miserable in every way he can.
Jamie, Henry’s handsome younger brother, soon arrives home from fighting in World War II. Jamie is winsome and charming, but troubled. Seemingly too caught up in his war memories to recognize the perils of the post-war South, he befriends Ronsel, the son of the McAllan’s sharecroppers, and he watches as Laura falls in love with the idea of saving him from his inner demons. Jordan does a good job of heightening drama by fracturing the storyline with the multiple narrators (each character narrates individual chapters, a la As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner). She also does a remarkable job of creating characters that speak with languid Southern drawl while at the same time keeping the plot tight and tense.
The comparisons to As I Lay Dying are inevitable. Even Jordan, in an interview with NPR](http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/067973225X?ie=UTF8&tag=feminrevie-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=067973225X), makes the connection, if a bit uncomfortably. It’s difficult to invoke a heavyweight classic and not be measured against it, and it seems that this sort of inspection often doesn’t bode well for the new challenger.
An in-depth analysis could be interesting: both books have thematic similarities as well as multiple narrators, cantankerous patriarchs or matriarchs that burden their families even in death, wild rivers, class tensions and even unusual and affecting descriptions of the sounds of coffins: scrubbing of lathes, banging of nails. The McAllans achieve a bit more closure and happiness than their Faulknerian counterparts, and the lives of Addie Bundren and Laura have many parallels. However, it’s implied that Laura finds more vindication in motherhood and may even gain respect and understanding for her stolid husband. Although this isn’t exactly empowerment, it’s a version of a happy ending.
In side-by-side scrutiny, it’s a bit tempting to think of Jordan’s novel as Faulkner with less of that bitter aftertaste. Nonetheless, Mudbound holds its own by addressing universal and timeless themes with an emotional gravitas and a remarkably steady hand for a first time author.