By Carrie Mullins
Old Cove Press
Reviewed by Denton Loving
In Carrie Mullins's first novel, Night Garden, seventeen-year-old Marie Massey trades her upper-middle-class parents for an older man, Bobo Owens, and his rough family of criminals. The two families live in neighboring counties in Kentucky, but their worlds couldn't be further apart.
From the beginning of the novel, the Owens clan is depicted in darkness and wildness:
Marie could see the fire up ahead through the trees. She could see sparks pull away from the flame and swirl up into the dark. It made her stomach tighten. She could see a hand shoot up, a shadow backlit by the flame, and she heard someone call out, long and slow, Heeeee yeooow! It was a yell full of the joy of being drunk on a Saturday night.
Mullins employs the wilderness again to characterize Bobo, who courts Marie by inviting her on a canoe trip down the Kentucky River. Bobo's dream is to build an outfitting business to guide canoers and kayakers on the river. Around the same time he meets Marie, he purchases some property near the river inside the Daniel Boone National Forest. He spends every spare moment drawing up plans for the new business.
Marie finds Bobo's attention both flattering and addictive despite him being nearly twice her age. It's not completely clear whether she falls in love with Bobo or merely finds his interest in her a convenient escape from her own family. At the core of Marie's character is her relationship with her parents, who seem to favor her older brother and don't seem able to hear Marie speak as her own person. After a sudden tragedy occurs in the family, Marie is left feeling even more invisible to her parents.
Bobo's family dynamic is similar despite his very different circumstances. While he dreams of his outfitting business, his family pressures him to be more involved in their illicit activities. At the head of the business is Bobo's grandmother, Etta. She bootlegs liquor and beer out of her house on a ridge just outside of town. She coordinates other activities too, such as selling prescription pills. However, even Etta disapproves of cooking methamphetamine, which Bobo and his brothers find to be a natural area for business expansion.
In reality, the area around the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky has long been associated with illegal drugs. Kentucky has been on the front lines of the Oxy epidemic for years, and meth manufacturing and distribution continues to be commonplace. Night Garden's brilliance is revealed in Mullins's quiet but realistic depiction of the drug trade. In rural areas like much of Appalachia, drug trafficking doesn't rely on foreign, sophisticated, ultra-clandestine cartels. In Night Garden, the same family who cooks meth started out bootlegging a couple of generations before. The family who deals drugs also barbeques on weekends and buys cookie dough for school fundraisers.
Mullins explores this dichotomy by constantly juxtaposing images of normality and illicitness. But her true strength is in her straightforward style. She never romanticizes the home lives of her characters, nor does she sensationalize their darker halves. Mullins pulls this off, in part, by keeping seventeen-year-old Marie at the constant heart of Night Garden, though she never allows the story to become a tome of teenage angst.
Much of Marie's story is left off the page, which results in a fast-paced, lean narrative in which every scene carries weight. If there's a problem with this, it's that Marie and Bobo's relationship sometimes feels inscrutable, especially as Bobo sacrifices himself and his goals for the family business. Even then, "Marie could see her purpose. She would be the one to help Bobo. She would take care of him. She would take care of their baby. She would help him make Owens Outfitters happen. She would make the whole back yard a garden."
Mullins grew up in Mt. Vernon, Kentucky, and still lives there. She practiced law in the state for fifteen years. Night Garden might be categorized by some as part of the increasingly popular genre of Southern Noir, but it won't be gritty enough for some readers who expect unrealistic, mafia-like vendettas and gruesome murders. Mullins writes from a more domestic viewpoint, which ultimately rings truer. While still exploring the shadows, she doesn't pander to outsider ideas of Kentucky's darker side. It's dark enough already. After all, the name Kentucky has often been interpreted as meaning "dark and bloody ground." As one character tells Marie, "Don't come here looking for comfort."