Thursday, November 29, 2018

Review: Visible Empire by Hannah Pittard

John F. Kennedy was in the White House and the whole country was living in the era of Camelot. The Civil Rights Movement was going strong although racial tensions continued to boil, often hidden, especially in Southern cities. Atlanta's upper class lived just as they always had until the shocking day that an Air France plane loaded with wealthy art patrons from their city crashed in Paris, decimating the movers and shakers of white society and opened doors for outsiders brave enough to walk through them past the smoldering wreckage of life before. Hannah Pittard uses this real life crash as the starting point for her novel, Visible Empire, about those left behind in the immediate aftermath of the tragic news.

The mayor of Atlanta and his wife, a pregnant woman whose parents perished on the plane and her journalist husband, whose mistress also died that day, a young black man hoping to better himself either educationally or by whatever means necessary, and a white working class woman who takes the opportunity to impersonate the relative of a reclusive member of society all take turns narrating the novel as the days after the crash pass in a blur of heat and rising tension. The loss of so many of the city's affluent social leaders gives a sort of manic and surreal feel to the grieving city, exposing undreamed of opportunities for the suppressed, the ambitious, and the dissipated.

Pittard has drawn a wealthy Atlanta that still exists in many ways and she has captured the racism that continues to stalk its streets as well but she's done it through a collection of less than likable, not always well fleshed out characters. The narrative started out strong in the immediate aftermath of the crash with the reeling disbelief of the survivors at home but veered into melodrama and chaos. She raises provocative issues of class and race, privilege and prejudice, but doesn't really get into the deep end with them, allowing the narration to turn away before it really addresses anything deeply. The community impact is clear and the personal impact is especially well explored. Perhaps there's just too much going on to allow for one story line to dominate and really matter; there's racism, classism, grief, infidelity, and more. The novel was rather oddly unemotional as it exposed the always cracked (but skillfully hidden) and now broken veneer of Atlanta's high society. And yet, despite my reservations, I didn't dislike the book. I didn't necessarily like it either. Pittard is skilled with words but maybe needs to find a little more heart, at least in this one.

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