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McLarey creates numerous richly drawn characters and changes the course of their lives with a cyclone so powerful that it is almost a character itself. Some discover a perverse benefit in this devastating natural force—the red-haired, porcelain-skinned preacher’s wife, for instance. Isannah Sanders’ scripture-loving, abusive husband remains at the breakfast table as the storm approaches, but Isannah runs to a storm shelter with their son, Baby William. The preacher perishes, but mother and child ride the wind and land safely in a tree, hanging by Isannah’s fiery hair. Fate is less kind to such other characters as Delie Turner, a beautiful woman with mahogany skin who rocks her daughter for hours on a porch swing as if she knows in her muscles it will be their last night together. Or Rebekah Sarah, the former slave who outlives most of her children and grandchildren, including Delie. A psychic whose powers become more extravagant with a few sips of blackberry brandy, Rebekah has the burden of envisioning death before it strikes. One of her eyes is fog-green and presumably diseased, yet through it she sees the future of Sugars Spring (Water‘s white township) and Chickenham (the “colored” part of town).
The heart of Water From the Well is a murder mystery involving Delie’s daughter, Baby Girl, who survives the cyclone, but years later is trapped in an even more tragic scenario. Raped by a white man, she runs away, and her accoster disappears; most people in Sugars Spring and Chickenham think Baby Girl—reputed to be a woman of loose morals—killed him. McLarey takes her time in sorting this tale out and surprises the reader in the end.
Such pivotal intersections between black and white lives make for some of the most beautiful and depraved of Water‘s stories. The rape scene, for instance, is so visceral that it leaves the reader feeling brutalized. And, by contrast, the most luxurious and sensual scene in the novel is Delie’s last night on earth, during which she tends to her baby and makes love with her white boyfriend.
McLarey is a stunning, lyrical writer and able chronicler, whose work is worthy of comparisons to Annie Dillard’s. Like Dillard—whose opus The Living has come to define a kind of down-home historical fiction—McLarey has an uncanny knack for weaving tales around and between each other in a believable, dexterous fashion. McLarey’s dense, full-to-breaking descriptive powers can sometimes seem a tad zealous, her observation too keen, and her signature naturalness too studied. Water From the Well, which is titled after a spiritual, takes off when more than a few of the characters are well established and McLarey loses the unwieldiness of her early descriptions. Perhaps in future fiction, McLarey can pare away the superfluous detail, more clearly revealing her surefire sense of the rhythm of life.