You know you've found a great writer when you read one of her books, then go on a mission to hunt down and read everything else's she's written. That's what happened when I read Barbara Samuel's The Sleeping Night.
I'm not sentimental; I can't remember the last time a book made me break down in tears, but this book did it. Several times I had to resist the urge to stop reading because it was too painful. I'm glad I kept on, because it was worth it. The Sleeping Night is wonderful, precisely because the characters' struggle is so agonizing.
(That said, if you hate books with unhappy endings be relieved -- there's a happy ending. :-))
Isaiah High is an African American soldier who returns to the small town of Gideon, Texas, after World War II. He knows he can't stay. The town killed his father. Even so, Isaiah can't keep away from Angel. He's been in love with Angel Cory since they were children, but she's white.
Angel and Isaiah wrote to each other during the war, but he eventually stopped writing. Each has kept the other's letters as a talisman. They can't reveal their love; it would get them killed. The letters between Angel and Isaiah are poignant. They can be themselves in letters, and say -- obliquely, and in sub-text -- what they could never say face to face.
Angel's father, Parker Cory, a man Isaiah respects and loves, has died and was buried a few days before Isaiah returns.
Her father's death puts Angel in a bad position. No one in the town wants her to keep working in the small store her father owned. Angel is determined that she will no matter how much the town shuns her: it's her source of pride, independence, and income.
The town, and Angel's aunt Georgia, expect her to marry arrogant, creepy Edwin Walker. Angel won't do it. She says: "He's been crazy as a mad dog as long as I can remember."
Edwin Walker, and others in the town, are evil. The book is flooded with a sense of constant danger. Angel lives alone. Isaiah has given her a gun, but one night Walker and his friends arrive and set fire to the store...
Here's what I loved about The Sleeping Night. Firstly, the characters. Both Isaiah and Angel are strong, caring, and genuine. I also loved the town of Gideon -- it was real, you felt as if you were there, in that time. The story made me understand what prejudice is, at a visceral level. At times I coudn't breathe, I was so shocked, and ashamed, that people can treat each other the way they did.
Most of all, I loved the love between Isaiah and Angel, which was always there in the story, even when they weren't together.
Read The Sleeping Night. I intend to read it again. And again. In a word: it's superb.
Review copy via NetGalley.