White Nights in Split Town City
Annie DeWitt’s first novel depicts the kind of rural American town that usually only gets covered in the aftermath of US presidential elections. White Nights in Split Town City is set in 1990 and narrated by the 12-year-old Jean, who unreels hazy prose against a potent backdrop of summer, the first Gulf War, and a family life that is falling apart. Jean has clearly been exposed to more of adult life’s darker goings-on than is appropriate for a child. She is aware of her body from early on in the book, wearing a swimsuit with holes on the sides just to show off a little extra flesh. What makes Jean a compelling narrator, however, is a strong sense of the strangeness of the world as seen by a child, irrevocably connected to her failure to grasp what’s going on around her.
DeWitt’s prose is taut and unforgiving, uncovering detail with effortless turns of phrase more akin to backhands in style than conventional writing. Nonetheless, her storytelling sometimes suffers as a result. This technique might have been more effective for building context instead of for revealing key dramatic moments. But DeWitt still stakes her claim as a writer of mood and of place, offering a kind of ’90s, New England equivalent to William Faulkner’s evocative south. A voice to watch.
Words – Stephen Cox