Olympia Vernon’s “Eden”

As another feature on this blog, I plan on doing regular posts (hopefully each weekend) providing my commentary on books I’m reading.

Eden: A Novel by Olympia Vernon.

Just yesterday, a friend asked me what the novel was about because he had seen my Goodreads update that I had finished reading it. I actually had a lot of difficulty summarizing it or figuring out how I felt about it. It’s an emotional novel full of symbolism and poetic language. I enjoyed it on some levels, but overall it was very difficult for me to get through.

The back cover plot claims the novel is about “a young black girl in the Deep South who comes to confront the realities of sex, race, disease, and mortality.” It goes on to say that the girl, Maddy, spends her weekends taking care of her Aunt Pip, who is dying of cancer.

However, having finished the book, it didn’t feel as though that was the main plot. Eden is far more about concepts like race, sexuality, religion, and death than it is about a girl caring for her dying aunt. The novel felt to be more of an extended snapshot of this girl’s life as well as the many elements surrounding life as a black person in the south. It focuses more on situations and circumstances than occurring events.

Unfortunately, this resulted in the book feeling very slow to me. The novel is under 300 pages, but I felt as though reading it took much longer than it should have. Without a plot moving in the foreground, the pacing of the book fell off. Aunt Pip’s story line becomes secondary, even forgettable. Given that there is very little other plot in the book, the lack of attention to Aunt Pip’s illness and Maddy’s role in caring for her felt very odd to me.

While the plot was not compelling enough to keep me interested or help me speed through the book, Vernon’s writing did keep me hooked. She truly has a spectacular way with words. Her writing is very emotional and lyrical. At times it felt to me as though the majority of the novel were one long prose poem. There are just these gems of sentences sprinkled throughout that make one look at something in a new way. And that is good writing.

The drawback of this beautiful, poetic language is that it could be very distracting. Sometimes Vernon’s phrasing was so odd that I was completely drawn out of the story. I was sitting there, reading a sentence and trying to determine its meaning. I love that Vernon has a fresh eye and an extraordinary ability to weave together sentences that are new and stunning, but I felt that the book warranted some editing. So much poetic language thrown into a novel format left me stuck trying to analyze the phrases instead of absorbing the characters and the plot.

This effect became even more difficult in the dialogue. While some of the dialogue is typical and was used to address the plot, more often Vernon would just go completely outside of the box. Characters would speak in phrases that were absolutely nonsensical, leaving me utterly confused. I had to read passages several times to try and figure out what was going on, as it seemed the characters were not speaking to the topic at hand.

Towards the end of the novel I read this, which seemed to summarize my entire feelings on the dialogue of the novel: “Their language was hidden beyond the house walls…” The dialogue almost seems to be some coded, inside language that only a select group of people could possibly understand. I was left in the dark.

Vernon is, without a doubt, a talented writer. I’m intrigued to explore more of her work. While Eden was not my favorite and I will likely not read it again, the beauty of the language has stuck with me. As an author, I realized that there is a delicate but necessary balance to strike: language that is beautiful and poetic, but also easily understood. I think I’m much more aware of this in my own writing after reading this novel.

Anyone else ever read this book? If you have, please leave a comment with your thoughts! If you haven’t, have you ever encountered a book that you struggled with in this way?



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