Thursday, June 22, 2023

Review: Backseat Saints by Joshilyn Jackson

Some people seem to make poor choice after poor choice in life, whether because they don't know any better or because they didn't have better role models. But poor life choices don't have to define a person forever. Breaking the pattern, breaking away, can be incredibly difficult but it is possible. There is always hope. Joshilyn Jackson's novel Backseat Saints is full of both poor decisions and hope for the future.

Ro Grandee, nee Rose Mae Lolley, was a side character in Jackson's debut novel gods in Alabama (lower case g intentional) but here she takes center stage. She grew up in Alabama, abandoned by her mother when she was just eight, and left directly in the line of fire of her alcoholic father's fists. So it's no surprise when she high tails it out of town as soon as possible. But leaving doesn't break the cycle of violence in her life as she meets and marries Thom Grandee, the son of the first family in his small Texas town. Rose Mae becomes Ro, a quiet, compliant, perfect wife whose hair and makeup are always impeccable and whose long sleeves hide the near constant bruises on her arms. Ro Grandee is not the quick, fearless spitfire that Rose Mae Lolley was although she needs to find that irrepressible girl inside herself again to find the courage to leave Thom, especially after a tarot reading stranger at the airport tells her that she will have to kill her husband or be killed, a truth she recognizes even as she still loves her abuser. And if she does leave, can she escape Thom as long as they're both still alive?

This is a companion novel to gods in Alabama although no knowledge of the first novel is needed to enjoy this one. There is a surprising amount of humor here, even in the face of such heavy topics as abandonment, domestic abuse, and alcoholism. Many of the characters, and especially Rose Mae, are emotionally damaged by their pasts. She must reckon with that past though, perhaps find her mother and confront her father, in order to understand and change the present, to escape her own certain death at Thom's hands. Jackson is adept at drawing small Southern towns and the people who inhabit them, understanding where each person fits in the hierarchy of place and the complications inherent in all of that. The novel is funny, heartbreaking, suspenseful, and twisty. Those who are looking for a good look into the psychology of an abused wife, the bravery it takes to run to a new life, and the promise of hope will find this a satisfying read.

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