He calls it his most important work. The Book of Marie by Terry Kay is an epistolary novel that spans fifty years of Cole Bishop’s life. Sparked by an invitation to his fiftieth high school reunion, Cole is thrust into memories of the girl, Marie who moved into his small North Georgia town his senior year – 1955.
Arriving from the “progressive” area of DC, Marie stirs things up in Overton, first by teaching the four small black children of their house maid and then by delivering a valedictorian speech that puts everyone who is listening on notice – the world is changing and unless they change with it, they’ll be left behind.
Kay uses an interesting structure to tell his story. Current time is written in third person. Cole has received the reunion invitation, and on the advice of his counselor, deals with the emotions it stirs by writing journal entries – written in first person – about his relationship with Marie, beginning with their first encounter. In addition, interspersed are letters that Marie has sent to Cole through the years. While it may sound like a lot is going on, Kay transitions among the voices as smoothly as his own Southern lilt.
Before Marie takes off and leaves Overton for good, she portends Cole’s future as one of fame and notoriety. The prophecy is fulfilled on Thursday in Atlanta when Cole goes to watch a demonstration. He happens to be standing right behind a young black girl when she’s shot by a sniper and as Cole instinctively catches her, his photo image is captured for posterity – to be run on the front page of newspapers all over the US. At the time Cole is a part-time editor for the Atlanta Chronicle, and I couldn’t help but wonder if some of the aftermath Cole experiences is Kay’s personal commentary on what would be first-hand knowledge of the politics of a powerful Southern journalism vehicle. (Kay once worked for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.)
I’m a fan of Terry Kay, and I’ll admit there is some hero worship involved when I read his books. But this one is every bit as good as I anticipated. I picked up The Book of Marie because I recently had the opportunity to chat with him over lunch at the Dahlonega Literary Festival and what he had said about it being his most important book. Regardless, anyone who enjoys Southern literature or just a good story about friendship, love and the sometimes blurry line between the two, will enjoy The Book of Marie.
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