Reviewed By Chris Harding Thornton
- Braddock Avenue Books (2020)
- 295 pages
In the broadest strokes, Karin Cecile Davidson’s Sybelia Drive is about lives upended and destroyed by the Vietnam War. But despite this novel spanning the globe and fourteen nonchronological years, 1963 to 1977, Davidson employs no broad strokes. Instead, we embody thirteen narrators who coalesce into a portrait—one that can’t be glimpsed through the windows of its primary setting, fictional Anna Clara, Florida, where white stucco homes line Sybelia Drive. The portrait here more closely resembles the Spanish moss draping the cypresses behind those houses—an intricate, interconnected web.
In its strands, we initially meet four people nearing the end of adolescence. The youngest, LuLu, is enraged by her father’s deployment to Vietnam and pilfers items from family and neighbors, tokens of what the world has taken from her. We also meet Rainey, the object of LuLu’s fierce love and jealousy, who is abandoned by her own mother to live with LuLu’s. The household is shared with LuLu’s half-brother, Saul, whose budding lust pinpoints Rainey as its object as well. Through her, Saul tries to fill the void of an abusive father killed in combat, a stepfather now deployed, and a mother who makes impossible promises to those she loves and demands the same in return. While Rainey is yanked between the siblings, still mourning and seething from her own abandonment, a fourth friend and neighbor, Alan, enlists and dies in Vietnam. His absence haunts the pages that follow, leaving the reader yearning for his return just as the characters do.
Lest anyone think Sybelia Drive is a coming of age story, though, the adults are writ equally large, and they too suffer the growing pains of change. Wedged between the present and memory, they numb themselves with cocktail hours and prescription drugs. LuLu’s father describes the survivors’ collective pain: “We’re all lacking something we once had. Arms, legs, egos, energy, will.” What the characters lack and the absences they suffer isolate them in their private lives’ upheavals.
That isolation is highlighted by the story’s structure, wherein each voice is distinct and experiences the world differently. Characters are walled off from each other by memories they can’t share, by grief, and by intersecting combinations of sexuality, age, gender, and disability. Hélène, an elderly French neighbor of LuLu’s family, silently suffers the loss of her first and only secret love, her cousin Simone, who spurned her for the attentions of a man who worked on the family’s rubber plantation. The mother of An, a young girl in Vietnam, warns her, “Boys have the luck; girls must not be so bold.” In LuLu’s dreams, the world wraps herself and Rainey in girlhood, “like birthday presents, slightly undone,” packages that are judged by how they fall when they’re dropped. When Rainey’s mother, a singer and model, agrees to an interview with a man from Look magazine, she already knows the reductive version he will render: “the Army wife gone astray, the mother without a child, the woman who entertains crowds and pleases men.” When LuLu’s father, Royal, comes home from the war having lost an arm, he spends time with Alan’s mother, whose own suffering has made her a fascination and pariah of the neighborhood. In a gesture simultaneously tender and infantilizing, she pushes the hair from his forehead, and he thinks, “I imagine she’s done this with her son, not her husband.”
For readers, the undercurrent of isolation is amplified by the chorus of thirteen narrators, most of whom are heard only once. But the writing never allows detachment. Even when we leave a narrator’s voice, we see that character through others. The result is a swelling sense of intimacy and cohesiveness. Davidson’s ability to pull off the book’s unconventional structure lies partly in the novel’s poetic language. It grips, challenges, and intimately engages from the book’s first sentence: “Rainey paraded down on us the year my daddy left.” Not only are we introduced to three distinct characters (and an allusion to more) in nine short words; the wordplay of Rainey paraded also demands concentration. The same concentration is required within the story, by characters who read letters sent home from the war, “smudged with red dirt and something like oil.”
The book’s lack of chronology never jars, either. The approach feels organic, echoing the experience of families receiving letters from Vietnam “in lots of three or more.” The missives are read “straight through and out of order.” Sybelia Drive takes that cue and creates a collage that adheres to a command an officer offers a soldier tasked with photographing and documenting the war. The soldier is told, “We are not talking about combat. We are not talking about the goddamned beauty of the battlefield. We are talking about survival and making sense out of this mess.”
The war in Vietnam remains a mess the world continually tries to survive and understand. And although Sybelia Drive almost exclusively channels the voices of white Americans in a single Floridian suburb, Davidson is aware that that view is not only incomplete; it obscures. This awareness is most apparent in chapters told by French-born Hélène and by An, a child in Vietnam. Some readers will regard these moments as insufficient gestures; others may wince at the author’s attempt to represent a child in Vietnam. But they show a writer reaching, trying to chip away at a canon of narratives that employ an American lens. The story also acknowledges that even its chorale structure cannot contain what it wishes to. As Rainey’s mother, an entertainer of servicemen, is interviewed for Look, she considers how she will be portrayed: “Perhaps only the smallest thread of light will make it into his mind, onto his typewritten pages, and out to the newsstands. A flicker of who I really am.”
Sybelia Drive finds these flickers on each typewritten page, like starlight through threads of Spanish moss.
Chris Harding Thornton, a seventh-generation Nebraskan, holds an MFA from the University of Washington and a PhD from the University of Nebraska, where she has taught literature and writing courses. She has worked as a quality assurance overseer at a condom factory, a jar-lid screwer at a plastics plant, a closer at Burger King, a record store clerk, an all-ages club manager, and a PR writer. Pickard County Atlas is her first novel.