The narrator, Emma Grace Lee, is almost nineteen and has a strange affection for Friendship Cemetery, Columbus, Mississippi. ‘A few benches are also scattered around. I guess this is so that the ghosts who come out at night can sit and chat with each other,’ observes Emma, which may be construed as ‘maybe a bit morbid for an eighteen-year-old’.
Emma’s friends are Pea, Beau, and Tyrone, all of whom are well drawn. Pea is fragile and vulnerable, yet has a strong will, and is a lovely creation. Tyrone is shy and withdrawn, while Beau is clever and hiding a secret. Their parents and neighbours are distinct human beings, with their tragedies and petty jealousies, too.
Throughout, the observations and description put you in Emma’s world, where she is still suffering the loss of her father who died in New Orleans, a man whom her mother seems to have expunged from memory. ‘When you lose someone there is always one more thing you wanted to say to them.’
The voice of Emma is captured perfectly – reminding me a little of Harper Lee’s Scout Finch, despite an age difference of several years. There’s the humour, pathos, compassion, irony and even satire. She has never been to New Orleans, but knows all about it from her late father, and rather hankers after leaving Columbus to go there. ‘In this city, unlike New Orleans, dead people prefer to stay in the ground and are apparently quite comfortable there.’
It’s a Southern Gothic tale, not just because of the ghostliness of the cemetery, but also the healing ability of Tyrone’s mother; and the general behaviour of many citizens and their concealed past that is gradually disinterred. As Emma muses, ‘Willowbrook is the mental health facility connected to Baptist Hospital. There are no willows, and no brook. I think a crazy person named it.’
In truth, you’d be crazy to miss this book.
A shorter version of this review will appear on Amazon and Goodreads.