Many of us around K-State’s English and Modern Languages Departments knew her as Sarah Greenwood. But the front cover of her impressive first novel, “Last Will”, calls her Bryn Greenwood. And, whether they knew her or not, anyone who wants to believe we can still get new novels that impress us, entertain us, and enfold us in their particular realities will be downloading the e-book version of “Last Will” while they wait for the paperback to be released later this month.
In the book, tall Bernie Raleigh is a lowly assistant in a small Kansas City-area library. The story begins when his grandfather dies, leaving the hesitant Bernie a fortune and the control of a remarkably profitable corporation.
So the thirty-year-old has to take a leave of absence to return to his childhood hometown in Oklahoma, the town where most of his family including his brother, the one groomed for financial leadership, has died.
The town from which Bernie was once kidnapped.
Little by little the reader learns that he was held through a series of horrors that have left him without ambition.
He is welcomed back by his Aunt Ginny.
Her children, who would have been heirs, all died in childhood. But she and her late husband always loved Bernie—perhaps they were the only people who did. We discover that they tried to raise his ransom themselves, selling off her jewelry, when Bernie’s grandfather and parents would not on principle do business with the kidnappers.
And little by little we learn about how he was snatched, how he was fed while the crooks kept him, and, finally, why he can’t sleep while anyone else is in the room with him. The details and reasons are all chillingly genuine-seeming without ever being melodramatic.
The reader follows along to see how shy Bernie learns to behave responsibly about his wealth while at the same time maintaining his personality and preferences.
Sometimes the businessmen bully him into doing what he would rather not do—appearing in a commercial for the company, for example. But he learns from his errors.
In fact, this is the most important strength of “Last Will”. Whatever happens to Bernie will be fully developed.
The reader sees the complete influence on the characters of each significant incident. Only really good fiction can claim this: its jolts are always more than jolts.
The great complication for Bernie after his homecoming is his attraction to the beautiful local girl Meda. And in some ways the book is about her adaptation as much as it is about his. She has her own history, her own reasons for doubting that change will bring improvement. The women of her poor family are all of them single. One insists she and other family members have been serially abducted by aliens, and this explains their inability to thrive even as it runs parallel to Bernie’s abduction experience and its on-going effects.
Greenwood sometimes shows off some rhetorical prowess as she powers the story along. But the novel’s great technical feature is her use of baton-passing first-person points of view. Each chapter is divided into short sections. When the section is not told by Bernie, the name of the character telling it appears as a heading to the section.
A reader immediately understands how the scheme works, but the effects the writer gets by allowing characters to tell us portions of scenes in which they appear is, well, terrific.
Not that those of us who knew Greenwood would have expected anything less. She writes like a Kansan, and that’s a plus.
But in “Last Will” she commands her skills and native preferences as few good writers can.
The result is an engaging and remarkable book.
G.W. Clift is one of the Mercury’s Arts critics.