Southern Gothic, Girl-style 

In her debut novel, June Spence takes on the dirty realists

In her debut novel, June Spence takes on the dirty realists

Changing is a hard chore for a human being. For Avie Goss, the protagonist in June Spence's debut novel Change Baby (Riverhead, 240 pp., $23.95), returning home to the South is what sets her down the path to righting that drinking problem and quitting that love affair with a man too old and too married.

Twenty-four years old, Avie is both listless and strong-willed. There's little direction in her life, yet she's determined to change that, wishing for clarity and hoping to figure out her place in her family's rarely discussed past. Returning to Regina, N.C., to take care of her sick mother, she wants to know more than that she's a "change baby," born to a woman "at the impossible age of forty-nine," and she wants to understand her parents' relationship, why the town often whispered about her father's "two wives." Open secrets abound, yet Avie comes to realize, "I could understand how such things hid in plain sight, so old now nobody thought to point to it much anymore." Ultimately, what Avie finds is that life is "made up of small graces" and that sometimes the truth isn't hidden at all. As one character says, "Where you thought was solid brick and mortar, all of a sudden a door opens right smack in the center and you wonder why you never saw the light pouring in around the edges before, for the door was always there, it is your seeing has changed."

Spence has an easy writing style, the prose languid enough for lyricism and quick-paced enough for plot. Her short story collection, Missing Women and Others, was a New York Times Notable Book and winner of the Willa Cather Fiction Prize. Most likely Spence will soon take her place among the literary royalty of Southern women, and though the book does have a sense of the all too familiar about it—doesn't every fictional ex-pat Southerner come home to take care of a dying parent?—what Spence is doing is admirable all the same. The mystery surrounding Avie's family is as tangled and as complex as any dark, gritty tale written by every grizzled Southern male writer out there today. Spence has simply dressed up the telling a bit, given it a softer touch.

June Spence joins her husband Scott Huler for an appearance at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Oct. 6 at 6 p.m.

—Lacey Galbraith


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