blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Review | Sufficient Grace, by Darnell Arnoult

spacer Dummy Fire
   Free Press, 2006

The term “Southern fiction” is as elusive as it is controversial. To many, Southern fiction is best known for its vivid, quirky characters, love of the land, reliance on community, strong sense of family, acute awareness of Southern history, emphasis on the region’s dominant religion, and centrality of race. To others, “the South” is a literary invention marked by the postmodern constructs of class, gender, and race. Regardless of which definition you use, or if you define it at all, Sufficient Grace is a well-crafted, lush, and luminous portrait of native Southerners. Two families, one black and one white, living in neighboring towns intersect through a woman suffering from mental illness, in “the narrow space between what is real and what is not, what is of this world and what is not.”

In Sufficient Grace, Darnell Arnoult deftly explores this issue: How is mental illness managed? How does it affect family, your circle of friends, and even strangers? What happens when you lose your old identity, and how can that loss connect you with others? Perhaps most important, how can such an illness be transformative, changed from a burden to a blessing on all those it touches? These questions are at the heart of the novel. Arnoult sensitively, and with humor, attempts to answer them through the protagonist, Gracie Hollaman, who is diagnosed with schizophrenia. One fine spring day, after painting three walls in her home with life-size Jesuses, Gracie obeys the voices in her head that tell her to get in her car and leave behind her husband, her daughter, her home, and her identity. A few days later she is found sprawled across the grave of Arty, Mama Toot’s dead son, and is graciously taken into the home of Toot and her daughter-in-law, Mattie. Upon her arrival, Sammy, Mattie’s son, observes, “Mama, that’s a white woman you found, not a stray dog.”

Gracie’s illness is the catalyst for change, altering both her life and the lives of everyone around her. Arnoult details those changes with electrifying prose. About Gracie, she writes:

Gracie grows lighter and lighter until she feels nothing and hears nothing. She only faintly sees shadows moving, shadows of winged creatures waving their hands over her closed eyes. After a time, Gracie’s body rises to float again, and the single deep sweet voice, more distant sounding than before, more powerful than the others, says to her, Because you are empty, I will fill you up. Gracie becomes nothing but white heat. 

Arnoult’s characters leap off the page with all the passion of a congregation in the hands of the Holy Spirit. They possess the warmth and comfort of slow food cooked in a Southern kitchen. Food, by the way, weaves throughout the pages, an agent for love and compassion; it becomes not only sustaining, but inspiring—spiritual nourishment for the soul. It is as though, on every page, Arnoult asks, “What is it that feeds these characters?” Gracie, when first taken in by Toot and Mattie, is literally spoon-fed back to life. Her husband Ed, a mechanic and owner of Tire Man, in her absence, discovers a deep love of cooking. When the two finally see each other again, months later, Gracie is unable to eat food that he has cooked; she cannot be fed by his emotional, intellectual, and spiritual sustenance:

What does Gracie need? He cannot abandon her, no matter how much she may reject him or refuse to eat his cooking for fear it’s bewitched. The medication has helped, but not enough. The doctors are debating on more hospitalization. They say there is a bipolar element to her condition. They say she may be depressed. Ed can’t understand how going to the hospital can help depression. Based on what he’s seen, it looks like it would make depression worse. Onset. That is the word they use at the hospital. Late-onset schizophrenia. Ed thinks about painting the yard as it is, but empty of people. No people at all. So sad. Just the roses, sleeping with their wintry sleep, and the empty chair. Maybe he would paint two empty chairs instead of one. Maybe he will go crazy and see what happens then.

It’s while she’s staying with Toot’s family that Gracie’s genius for painting is discovered. While at Toot’s, she begins painting a metal menagerie of old car and tractor parts with images of Jesus, biblical characters, and fairies. Painting becomes a way of reconciling with her past and the dark secret that has haunted her for years. Fairies, in particular, take on significance in her life and art:

Gracie pointed to an illustration of a fairy sitting on a toadstool. Ed was struck by the resemblance to Gracie as a young girl. The long thick red curls, the pale skin, the rosy cheeks, the dainty feet. At the bottom of the page, the same fairy lay beside the river as she threw a fish into the water. “You see how beautiful she became?” “Who?” Ed said, as encouragingly as he could muster, trying hard to see some shred of logic in what Gracie was doing. “The one they took from me. I held her in my heart and then I let her slide back into the water. And all this time she’s lived in the world next to ours. That’s what fairies do. Their world is right next to ours, but mortals can’t see it. And she’s there. She’s a fairy now. And that’s her picture. And that one, too.” Gracie’s finger moved to the picture of the fairy and the fish. “Her name is Fay and she talks to me sometimes.”

All of the characters are united by a hunger for something, whether it’s validation, comfort, love, friendship, or the knowledge that the dead are still alive in the hearts of those who loved them. They are also united by loss: Gracie’s old identity as Ed’s wife and Ginger’s mother, Gracie’s health, and the loss of Arty, who is Toot’s son, Mattie’s husband, and Sammy’s father. Toward the end, Toot meditates on Mattie’s coping with her husband’s death:          

“You lose somebody, it’s like hanging off a cliff, “she says. “You hang there by a rope, and the dead, they try to pull you up and over the edge. And you thinking all the time they pulling you up and keeping you safe. But the tug of life pulls you down to the ground. Your hand slips little by little. But you work to stay with death. Your hand becomes used to the strain of holding on. You think death got you, but really you got death.”

With Sufficient Grace, her debut novel, Darnell Arnoult proves that she is a gifted storyteller. Her writing fearlessly explores the complexities of mental illness and loss, as well as the courage needed to face both with wisdom, humor, and warmth. The only thing missing is the recipes.  

Darnell Arnoult was born in Henry County, Virginia. She lived for twenty years in Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina, where she received a BA in American Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an MA in English and Creative Writing from North Carolina State University and worked at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University (2006). She is also the author of What Travels With Us: Poems, published by Louisiana State University Press (2006) and is the winner of the Appalachian Studies Association's Weatherford Award. Her fiction and poetry have been published in a variety of journals, and she has taught creative writing to adults for over fifteen years. She lives on a small farm near Nashville, Tennessee.

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