Only weeks from her thirtieth birthday, Althea Bell returns to her home in Mobile, Alabama after a year spent recovering from her pill addiction. But the home she grew up in is barely one she recognizes: her father’s Alzheimer’s has worsened and she is shunned by her brother and his new wife, who believe her a danger to herself and a to her brother’s political campaign. After her family lets something slip about the women in her family going crazy around their thirtieth birthdays, Althea rushes to figure out the secret before her time runs out, the contents of an old cigar box her only clues. Intertwined with the story of Jinn, Althea’s great-grandmother who made honeysuckle wine, the story twists and turns with new discoveries, the promise of magical realism constantly just out of reach.
Y’all. I’ve had a hard time writing this, although I think that’s mostly because every time I sit down to write this review, I have flashbacks to finishing my English degree and swearing to myself I’d never write anything but fiction. Life’s a funny thing. So let’s dig in before I distract myself by cleaning again (which, trust me, only truly happens when I’m procrastinating).
Despite what my introduction may suggest, this novel by Emily Carpenter was not difficult to settle into. Honestly I saw that it was set in Alabama and immediately knew I was going to give it a read because I’m always interested to see how people portray my home state. Luckily, Carpenter is from Birmingham, so there were no ridiculously overplayed Southern accents, only real characters moving through familiar scenery. And boy, did we cover some ground through the course of this story!
Bouncing back and forth mostly between Mobile and Birmingham (which are about four hours apart, unless you drive like a maniac), Althea searches high and low for the secrets to her family history. She only has a few things in the Red Raven cigar box her mother left her to go on: some pill bottles, a white and gold barrette, a painting, and an old Latin prayer her mother used to chant. I really loved the progression of Althea’s search for clues (broken occasionally by the story of Jinn, her great-grandmother). It was so organic and natural and, at times, you could feel the frustration when Althea hit a wall and wasn’t sure what to do next.
I appreciated her reluctance to let anyone (including handsome Jay) help her. I loved that she was ballsy enough to steal Jay’s car and bribe her old drug dealer with nude pictures if it meant finding the truth. But that defiance and stubbornness are balanced by several human moments of doubt. Despite getting clean, she still struggles with her addiction daily, even going as far as stealing pills and stashing them in her purse, just in case.
I also appreciated that what Althea found out about the women in her family dredged up plenty of Alabama’s past as well. From her great-grandmother Jinn taking advantage of the post-Prohibition moonshine craze, to her grandmother Collie aiding the Civil Rights campaign despite the men in her family having ties to the KKK, to her mother Trix struggling under the weight of her husband’s political campaign. Each woman is silenced by the men in her life, ultimately killed for desiring a better life, a life filled with choice.
Alongside Althea’s story is the story of her great-grandmother Jinn, a mother and wife from Sybil Valley in the late nineteen-thirties who makes honeysuckle wine. Guys, I love it when stories have other stories going on and the way Carpenter weaved the two together was so enjoyable. Trapped in an abusive relationship in a time where divorce was hardly an option, Jinn struggles for autonomy in the only way she can find–by making honeysuckle wine. She becomes known for it, the honeysuckle so intertwined with her being that people say she smells like it.
After gaining success and confidence by selling her wine in Chattanooga, she begins to hope for a better life with her childhood friend, Tom Stocker. But the men in her family are much too proud to let her fantasies of escaping with him come to pass and the events that end her life of thirty years set something like a generational curse into motion. She was the first in a long line to be threatened with Pritchard (although only her bones made it there), the infamous (fictional) Alabama Insane House. There, with the exception of Althea, the women of her family were buried secretly and, in the final chapters, their unmarked graves are discovered and their bones are finally put to rest. Thus the name, Burying the Honeysuckle Girls. Although I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some confusion surrounding the title.
Throughout the novel, the honeysuckle girl is a name Althea’s mother used to refer to the woman who is either supposed to contact Althea on her thirtieth birthday, or Althea is supposed to find her. It is discovered that this “honeysuckle girl” is an old woman named Dove who witnessed the death of Jinn at the hands of her own father in 1937, the night before she would have been sent to Pritchard. She contacts Collie, Jinn’s daughter, on her thirtieth birthday and tells her what happened to her mother (who everyone believed ran off with a lover), which sends Collie into a tailspin, leading her to confront her brother Walter (who knew all along). He sends her to Pritchard and then later kills her with the family gun, to silence her. Dove then contacts Trix on her thirtieth, who by then had been taking Haldol as a way of preemptively treating schizophrenia because she truly feared the women in her family all turned crazy at thirty. Upon hearing of her family’s gruesome past, Trix too confronted Walter, attacking him with the family shotgun–a symbol of the oppressive men in her family. The next day, she was shipped off to Pritchard (where Walter forced her to overdose), but not before warning a five-year-old Althea to look out for the honeysuckle girl and to take the Haldol she left her when she gets older.
Setting aside the fact that I was a little disappointed the book didn’t actually contain anything magical (except for Dove seeming to have strange psychic-esque faith-based intuition that she maybe passed along to Jinn), all signs should point to Jinn as the honeysuckle girl and Dove as some twisted harbinger of doom. Instead, Althea concludes in the Epilogue that the honeysuckle girl had a “gift” for her, though it’s a shoulder-shrug as to what exactly that “gift” is–whether it’s the knowledge of her gruesome past (which she had already mostly pieced together anyway before Dove showed up in the final chapters) or it’s that strange intuition that isn’t really mentioned after Jinn’s storyline finishes.
Whatever the case, the only thing I can figure is that the honeysuckle itself is a symbol of Jinn’s line (since it seems to represent the beginning of her struggle for autonomy) and when Dove brings her descendants the truth of her tragic death, she is bringing them the potential to make it right, which is completed when Althea “conquers” her brother (more on that in a second), delivers the accursed gun to the police, and lays her ancestor’s bones to rest. If that’s the case, the fact that Althea says at the end she will teach her daughter of the honeysuckle points to this transfer of knowledge, equating it to the ability to take control of one’s own destiny and signaling that her daughter will have a much more hopeful life than the last several generations of women in her family.
And while that is actually really awesome and even makes up for the fact that I thought there would be magical realism and totally got myself psyched for that, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the plot points that didn’t work. But if I’m being honest, there was just one, big, gaping hole of a plot point that absolutely rankled me to the point of dropping this possibly 4.5/5 novel down a full star. And it was actually the climax of the story… so… rather important.
After forcing Althea to take nearly an entire bottle of pills and checking her into Pritchard doesn’t work, Wynn decides the only way to make sure his family’s connection to the KKK and long-running streak of violence are kept hidden so his political campaign can thrive is to kill his sister and the only other person who knows everything–Dove. (Even though actually killing two people seems a little worse than having a dubious lineage, but maybe that’s just me). He confesses his plan to kill both of them on a rickety pier in Mobile, but then conveniently falls through the rotting wood and breaks his leg, prompting an instantaneous apology for the whole thing. Sibling squabbles, am I right?
But just when Althea’s ready to help him up and forgive and forget the whole thing (it’s okay that you’ve consistently tried to kill and discredit me, water under the pier), an alligator appears, hungry for future politician meat. Then we have a rather ridiculous scene seemingly lifted from Jaws where Althea, spurred by Wynn’s recent apology and the kindness in her morally righteous heart, attempts to pull him from the clutches of the gator as he flails in the water.
Aren’t we a little old to resort to the tired Disney convention of killing someone off so the protagonist doesn’t have to? God forbid the protagonist be anything but absolutely 100% blameless in all aspects of her life. If you have to kill the brother off, what’s wrong with having them fight over the family heirloom gun–the actual symbol of power being exerted over the women in her family–and having to make the decision of whether or not to kill her brother? Could she really be blamed in the readers’ eyes after everything that he has done? After everything that the men in her family have done?
If we’re being honest, though, the real reason this plot point bothers me so much is because it completely works against the message we just established: that the whole point of the honeysuckle girl is autonomy, self-governance, agency. By having Mother Nature come in and fight her battles for her, Althea is denied any choice in the altercation with her brother. It’s just so convenient, and life is messy, chaotic, and there just isn’t always a gator around when you have a fight with your brother. (Trust me, my brother lives in Mobile and we’ve had plenty of disagreements).
And if we’re just baking a whole batch of honesty pie, Wynn as a character didn’t work for me at all. He moves very quickly from an aspiring politician to a person so vile and “evil” that he’d drug his own sister so she’s institutionalized and therefore discredited from speaking of their family’s dark past (even though Althea never even set out to publicize their history). And then, when that doesn’t work, he determines to kill both his pregnant sister and ninety-year-old Dove–in a dramatic soliloquy, old-fashioned ‘here’s my whole plan, yeah I’m the bad guy, evil laugh time’ style. Let’s completely set aside the whole tired cliché of a bad-guy monologue for a moment and focus on the development of his character…
Wait. There wasn’t any… Not really. You know from the beginning that he’s running for office and that he has plenty of pressure on him because his father was Attorney General of Alabama and he’s got a lot of people backing him, but that’s about it. I’m all for the power-hungry ruthless villain, but someone so vile seems wildly out of place without some sort of in-depth justification. Especially since I’ve never bought into the idea that people are starkly black or white. There’s so much grey in everyone, so many complexities that make up individuals and good characters. The best villains (and villains are honestly my favorite in any story because spoiler, they’re the reason we read–yeah, think about it) are the ones who have a mixture of “good” and “bad” to them. I was honestly more forgiving of Wynn’s character as starkly “evil” when I thought there was some magical realism to this book, but alas, there was no curse affecting his behavior (I’ll never let it go!).
All things taken into account, this book has a lot going for it. It’s a mystery cloaked in Alabama history, emphasizing the mistreatment of women and minorities at the hands of white men, with a feminist agenda piecing everything together. Who wouldn’t dig that? But it lost stars for the moments it opted for the melodramatic rather than the realistic.
Thanks so much for reading!
Until next time,