Finally, the Pleyel piano. Chopin sits down to play. Flores’ prose rises and falls, taking on a haunting, poetic register: “Remember us, distant yesterday and impossible tomorrow, whales under moonlight, blood on clear, green water, do not forget.” The lyrical improvisation elevates the enchantment of the castle, like magic. It also transports the reader.
Erica Plouffe Lazure travels even further east, exploring the vicissitudes of small-town life in eastern North Carolina in her debut collection, PROOF OF ME (212 pp., New American Press, paper, $17). Each of the book’s five sections delves into a family or community in the fictional intersection of Mewborn. Written with deep emotional intelligence, these are indelible portraits of people seeking mercy in the wrong places.
Within each section are discrete but connected stories, many of which are succinct vignettes that telegraph a character’s complex interiority into a few short pages. However, it’s the longer stretches that allow Lazure’s characters to breathe fully. In “Shad Daze,” Noah Saunders takes his girlfriend home to meet the family at Mewborn’s Shad Festival in April, when the herring “makes their seasonal flow upstream on the Neuse,” the local river. Years ago, his sister, Sissy, had been crowned Elf Queen “in her knockout days…thin and redheaded, her smile defiant and coming here.” However, her affair with an older man disgraced the city and Sissy’s election title was revoked. Noah doesn’t communicate much with his family and there is little love between him and Sissy these days, although they were once close. The siblings even shared a best friend, Knox, who died of an accidental drug overdose two years ago. In sparse, clear prose, Lazure deftly reveals how grief invades and grips a family, irrevocably shattering an entire community.
The characters in “Proof of Me” gossip about their neighbors, betray their husbands in ways big and small, and spend more time at Duck’s Tavern than they should. They are also the same people who care for an elderly parent or an abandoned niece without complaint and lie without blinking to spare a friend’s feelings. Some may flee Mewborn—to Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, or as far away as Bodh Gaya, India—to seek other fortunes. But when the rural landscape of North Carolina calls, these prodigal sons and daughters inevitably answer. Lazure’s sensitive portrayal of this particular American place deserves the attention of readers from all over the map.
Jean Chen Ho is a PhD student at the University of Southern California and the author of “Fiona and Jane.”