I came home from my vacation in Canada to find my Advanced Reader Copy from Hyperion of David Fuller's debut novel, Sweetsmoke. Ooo, a new book to read! I settled into reading this story of Cassius, a slave cum detective, on Hoke Howard's tobacco plantation, Sweetsmoke, in Civil War Virginia. I love historical fiction and a story told from a slave's POV intrigued me, add a detective story and, boy, I was looking forward to this book.
Cassius is a well-drawn, multi-dimensional character and I immediately felt drawn into his world. However, if I hadn't known I was going to review the book, I may have set it back on the shelf for another look-see another time after the first 10 pages or so. We are completely in Cassius' head for the beginning of the book. Very little happens but description and backstory. Beautiful, minute attention is given to setting detail, but after awhile I began to get annoyed and was ready to flip past another 20 pages of the stuff to get to the action. I stuck with it and was ultimately glad I did. Once we move into dialogue and the story unfolds, Sweetsmoke becomes a more engaging book.
Perhaps if I wasn't a writer and have beaten myself over the head about "show, don't tell," I wouldn't be quite as critical about this. However, if you have a good story, which Fuller definitely does have, it is worth doing well.
I also found Fuller's device of using quotation marks for only the white folks dialogue confusing. I recently read Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum. Blum used no quotation marks at all, and while that was an initial jolt, it later felt more comfortable and I could understand her reasoning in doing so. It depersonalized or distanced some very difficult material. If Fuller's reasoning was to emphasize the boundaries between whites and blacks through culture and language, I can understand. However, it became a distraction rather than an addition to the flow of the novel. Perhaps it would have been enough to have no quotation marks in black-only dialogue. I don't know. A device like this should add something that the story may not directly imply. Fuller, however, shows us the boundaries quite well through his narrative and dialogue. It's like he felt his writing wasn't enough to make the distinctions.
Cassius caught in the middle of battle was riveting! I was right there with him, heart pounding, eager and, yet, paralyzed with fear for what might come next.
I would recommend Sweetsmoke to a friend with the caveat that it will get better after the first 30 or so pages.