Ever since they were children surviving the abuse of their alcoholic father, Sterling has always relied on her older brother, Phin. So when Phin announces he’s going off to college, Sterling rails against his “abandonment” the only way she knows how. Her passive but dangerous self-neglect incites a fight between them, and Phin takes off into the sinister swamp that everyone in town knows you should never enter. While waiting for her brother’s reemergence, Sterling instead witnesses a girl walk out of the swamp and straight into the life that Phin once held. The mysterious Lenora May replaces all traces of Phin in an instant—including everyone’s memories of him. Everyone, that is, except for Sterling. Determined to get her brother back, she is aided by her deeply skeptical best friend, and a troubled boy from her high school class who has good reason to believe her story…
What I Liked:
While the Southern gothic theme bears some resemblance to Beautiful Creatures, the prose is smoother, tighter, and all around more pleasant as an experience. Parker’s characterization of both people and settings paints a vividly immersive mental picture, effectively conveying the good, the bad, and the creepy—all with a cadence one could almost equate to a literary dance. Her voice is uncommon and promising. And the first-person present-tense telling (solely from Sterling’s POV) was the least obtrusive I’ve come across in recent memory.
This reader VERY much appreciated the book’s nuanced depiction of anorexia. Unlike with some YA where the characters essentially become their mental illness, it was shown as a persisting and comprehensive flaw—more a passive mode of control rather than an active fixation on weight or body image. Sterling’s abusive past with her alcoholic father and unhealthy co-dependency on her brother culminate into to reverse of acting out: a willful negligence and disinterest. But her family and friends are anything but passive over the issue. Her support structure is refreshingly strong, caring, and observant—in spite of her unfortunate childhood background.
On a similar note, I rather enjoyed the parallels of the inter-reliant (yet detrimental) brother/sister relationships. The symmetry was rousing without feeling too intentional. In a way, Sterling is to Phin what Fisher is to May—destructively clingy. While dependency was once a matter of survival, it has become a stagnant thing that holds them back.
What Didn’t Work For Me:
Unfortunately there were a few hints of author intrusion, primarily early on. The general impression was a needlessly inserted political agenda, blatantly catering to an offensive stereotype. Case in point:
"Darold's never been invited to join them. He says it's because he's not yet ancient enough to need a rocker, but I'm convinced half of them will vote Democrat before they let a black man join their ranks."
The romantic angle was a little underwhelming. (Although, granted, the focus is far more on the plot than on romance.) There were times the pacing seemed to suffer from the distractions of attraction. At one point the MC puts her mission of retrieving her brother on hold so she can go on a date.
While the worldbuilding started out uniquely compelling, it steadily depleted in momentum and believability as the story progressed. The eventual solution found for freeing people from the symbiotic bonds of the mystical swamp was both sketchy and confusing. This reader would have preferred more clearly defined rules and boundaries of the magics at work—however much this fleshing out would have undoubtedly inflated the page count.
Overall, this was an entertaining low-fantasy read—bewitching in writing style and noteworthy in concept.
"There's always a little piece of truth stuck inside a good pretending."
"There's one surefire way to annoy a sibling and that's to stand around their friends while being young."