April 30, 2016

Work Like Any Other - Virginia Reeves

Scribner, March 1, 2016.

Three Stars

In rural Alabama in the 1920s, Roscoe and his wife and son are struggling to make ends meet on their family farm. Roscoe never wanted to be a farmer – he is an electrician, and he realizes the potential of harnessing the vast power of electricity. Meanwhile, his wife has inherited the farm, and he is forced to work the land, a task for which he has little capability.

After his failure to competently run the farm, Roscoe leaves day-to-day matters to his manager, and finds a bigger and better way to contribute. He finds a way to build power lines on the farm, siphoning energy from the state. Finally, things are going well for Roscoe, and he has gained some respect from his wife and his son. That is, until the police show up at his door, arresting him for the death of a young power company worker, who was electrocuted and killed on Roscoe’s power lines. Roscoe receives a twenty-year sentence, and his family abandons him, leaving him to serve his time alone.

All of the above plot points are described in the book’s synopsis, and there really isn’t a whole lot more to the story, so don’t expect any surprises in this novel. The plot seemed secondary in the author’s writing style, with the events of Roscoe’s life only serving as a framework for issues of redemption and familial love (or lack thereof). The novel is about relationships – husband and wife, parent and child, and even the uneasy camaraderie between the inmates at Roscoe’s prison. It is also about Roscoe’s loss of dignity and self-respect – and his need to accept the past in order to move forward.

The writing is sparse, marked by emotional detachment. Reeves is a strong, talented writer, a manipulator of beautiful language, yet I didn’t find that the actual story held my attention. The novel alternates between Roscoe’s first-person narration of life in prison and third-person flashbacks, describing how he ended up there. Regardless of his punishment, Roscoe still sees electricity as his personal religion, finding spiritual solace in its powerful potential.

Although he is repeatedly up for parole, Roscoe is never released because he cannot repent for his actions. The descriptions of scenes within the historical prison setting were interesting, and I was curious to learn more about the jobs the prisoners were given within their confinement. The novel generally questions the nature of punishment and of the penal system overall: Roscoe had no intention of killing, and it makes no sense to lock him up for his crime, yet that is how the system works.

Work Like Any Other is an introspective novel. It is filled with ideas, and the plot is almost incidental to the concepts Reeves is exploring. The story is a quiet one, spoken softly, and it is lovely to read – it was just a bit too slow for me.

I received this novel from Scribner and Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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