In The Memory of Flight, Debra Bowling celebrates the tradition of Southern literature, focusing her story on the family and the depressive issues of mental illness and abuse.
The novel is set in rural Alabama in the 1960's and 70's. In the opening pages, Marilyn, a young mother, attempts suicide to escape her life with an abusive husband. Marilyn returns home to her parents with her three children. Ginny, Marilyn's middle child, emerges as a central character in the story. Through her eyes, we glimpse the poverty of her life in rural Alabama. We observe her father's attack on their mother and are shocked by the interactions with her uncle. We observe Ginny's grandfather rolling linoleum over the dirt floor of the garage next to her grandparents' house (it would become her home) and we watch her mother slide further into depression. Bowling's descriptions are rich, and we feel the rage and discomfort, see the rusty chicken wire and sense Marilyn's emotional withdrawal.
Bowling's narratives also show her characters' a vulnerability, her portrayals yielding a transparency. When Ginny roots in her mother's bureau, we experience her curiosity and her thrill at finding an old Brownie Camera. She becomes obsessed with it, carrying the camera with her everywhere, taking pictures focusing on faces and catching emotions there. Through her camera and her pictures, Ginny is able to cope with her poverty and dysfunctional home life. It is her camera that carries her away to college and beyond, leading her, at times unwittingly, through a variety of experiences. At one point, when we're privy to her thoughts, we learn that "Ginny worried she might slide out of the chair and disappear underneath the table. She's melting. Maybe she feels hollow inside too, like the hollow chocolate bunny..."
Shortly after the family took flight and moved into their garage home, Marilyn commented to Ginny, "Whatever is broken, can't be fixed." This comment resonates in Marilyn's hopelessness throughout the book. At the same time, it serves as an impetus for Ginny to moving beyond the brokenness, striving with her camera to find herself, to "fix" herself. The Memory of Flight is an emotional and satisfying read. Highly recommended.
Debra Bowling grew up in North Alabama, graduated from The University of Alabama, and currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia. For many years, she divided her time between writing and social work, while also dabbling in photography and video documentaries. She has also worked as a consultant, planning and raising money for nonprofit social service and arts organizations. The Memory of Flight was awarded the 2015 Georgia Author of the Year Award for First Novel. Visit her website.
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