Lone Women by Victor LaValle
One World (March 28, 2023)
304 pages; $27 hardback; $13.99 e-book
Reviewed by Dave Simms
Some books, special books, have a narrative style that grab the reader by the throat while whispering the words of angels in the ear. When that writing connects with a story so mesmerizing, the result is a reading experience that whisks away the hours.
When attempting to explain the plot of Lone Women, one might find themselves a bit tangled. Victor LaValle has been know to accomplish this before. The Changeling, The Ballad of Black Tom, and The Devil in Silver all exemplify this in stories that meld genres, the fantastic with the grotesque, the beautiful with the grittiest of settings.
This time, the author kidnaps the audience first on a train, then a wagon, along with an enigmatic main character. Adelaide Henry escapes California to the frontier of Montana, where she buys a claim on a parcel of land next to a town smaller than most tumbleweeds. Adelaide leaves her parents slaughtered in their barn. Did she do it? What was her role? Is she running from who killed them or her own dark sins? All that she takes with her to start a new life is a massive steamer trunk, something heavier than any single person can drag along. What’s inside is a curse that LaValle takes his time laying out, a tale that is equal parts western, adventure, drama, and weird, dark fiction in a manner that sounds like it shouldn’t work, yet somehow, it does.
The main character stakes her claim as one of the “lone women” who attempt to farm the pieces of land in return for ownership. When she arrives, she meets a trio of other women who form a tough bond, as Adelaide forges her own path while learning from one who brews a special liquor, a laundry owner, and a teacher with her own dark history. What ensues is a hellacious spiral of events that are both human and inhuman, the motivations twisted and inverted.
LaValle’s cast of characters burn deep shadows onto the pages in exquisite fashion, from the smallest role to those who shed their wholesome layers to reveal the cracked and diseased. As always, the writing treads the line between true horror and sheer beauty, which makes Lone Women such a fine read, one that will stick in readers’ memories long after the book is closed.
There’s plenty more to say about the novel, yet even the tiniest reveal would spoil what needs to be discovered by the reader on their own.
Very different, but so highly recommended.