Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery

DECORATIONS IN A RUINED CEMETERY begins with the collapse of the bridge across Lake Pontchartrain, a calamity that halts the progress of Dr. Thomas Eagan as he attempts to flee from the consequences of a failed marriage back in New Orleans. In his car he has his twin children, Meredith and Lowell. The novel is essentially a description of Meredith’s coming of age, how she becomes a touchstone for the unraveling of a complicated family history of miscegenation and betrayal. Thomas leaves his wife, Catherine, the children’s stepmother, without apparent reason, and years later, as she puts together the pieces of the story, Meredith tries to understand her father’s quixotic abandonment of a woman the twins had grown to love. Thomas also had been abandoned as a child, also for reasons he could not fathom at that age. His mother, a proud, black woman, had abruptly left his father, an Irish Catholic whose goodness of heart and spirit was unimpeachable.

Meredith’s grandfather made monuments for cemeteries, especially for the poor, and, for his work, he engaged the services of a black man, Murphy, who, in one of those curious, revelatory twists of destiny, is the only near-casualty of the bridge’s collapse. Through her stepmother’s affectionate and loving letters and through Murphy’s memory, Meredith is finally the only one who knows the whole story, how all of these people suffer from a lack of knowledge and from an inherited sense of guilt.

This fine novel is so wise and mature that it gives no evidence of the relative youth of its author, who does not hesitate to tackle complicated themes of faith and its limitations, race and its pervasiveness, or society and its callousness. Brown is adept at changing points of view so that his reader learns as much from the nuance of character as from the details of narrative. He is also careful to control suspense so that what appears to be straightforward becomes half-truthful later as he gives readers another version through other characters, none of whom are blessed with the whole truth. What is most striking about this novel, however, is Brown’s fearless and sensitive handling of the issues of race in a region where nothing is ever entirely black or white.