Book Review: 'Over the Plain Houses' By Julia FranksJulia Franks' debut novel is set in Depression-era North Carolina, where young farm wife Irenie is sneaking off to the woods for moments away from her husband — who's convinced his wife is a witch.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that narratives about witchcraft — whether real or imaginary — are usually narratives about women surviving under circumstances that entirely justify the practice. That is, whether embracing the lush thrum of nature or signing one's name in the devil's book, it is never idle, never not-warranted.
In that spirit comes the story of Irenie, the meek wife of a preacher in Depression-era North Carolina. Her husband Brodis wasn't always a man of God, rather, he is a former logger whose transformation after a near-death experience has all the fervency one might expect from a convert. Brodis works the land of their farm and nurses a resentment toward all of Irenie's sins — or perhaps I should say "sins" — including not sitting where he wants her to during church and defending her son when he asks a provocative theological question.
Early in the novel, a female USDA agent takes up residence in their community, and Irenie is intrigued and roused by her subtly subversive ways. This coincides with Irenie's ongoing midnight jaunts to a private place in the mountains, a cave where she secrets away treasures, like a fox skeleton whose beauty her husband was indifferent to. ("The fox," the narrative notes, "had been the first thing she'd taken for herself.")
It is these repeated acts of self-preservation, of agency, that Brodis senses — and dislikes. Enraged by Irenie's stolen moments, he rapes her — not that he frames it that way in his own consciousness, mind you. Horrified, she struggles to come to terms with her identity within her marriage, and the world. "The wife's body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband," she realizes. "It wasn't their house. Not even their farm, even though it had once been part of her father's land. It was his. Brodis's. Everything was his. Even her." Parallel to his wife's perspective but deeply ignorant of it, Brodis' point-of-view is simultaneously earnest and awful, or perhaps just earnestly awful. A series of coincidences feed his opinion that his wife is a witch consorting with the devil, and he must stop it at any cost.
In many ways, Over the Plain Houses evokes Michel Faber's 2002 novel The Crimson Petal and the White, a sweeping, Dickensian epic set in turn-of-the-century London, following the fortunes of a young kept prostitute, a perfumer, and the perfumer's convalescing, eccentric wife. In Crimson, these two very different women struggle to make sense of their positions in relationship to the male gender that so dominates every inch of society and life. As they begin to grow and change, the seemingly benevolent man who lords over them both struggles to reassert his sense of ownership over them, with increasingly tragic results. You might call Crimson and Houses part of the same subgenre of feminist literature: "Well-Intentioned Men Might Be the Worst Type of Men."
Fans of the recent horror film The Witch — or students of the Christian bible — will recognize a line from Over the Plain Houses, a mourning sentiment from Brodis that paraphrases the book of Revelations: "How much she had glorified herself, and lived deliciously! How much she had said in her heart, I sit a queen, and shall see no sorrow!" Meant to be a condemnation, it scans to the reader as a right; an earned reward. Irenie has suffered and asked for nothing; does she not have the right to live deliciously for the rest of her days?
Early on in the novel, Irenie watches a red-tailed hawk land on one of Brodis' wolf traps. The hawk shrieks and takes off, trailing blood, and leaves behind her severed legs in the metal jaws, curled around the pressure-plate. Irenie takes a shovel and sets off the other trap against her husband's instructions. Her desire to preserve nature is her desire to preserve herself; the earliest stirrings of freedom.
And indeed, isn't that witchcraft? Disobedience, seizing what you desire, and never looking back?
Carmen Maria Machado's debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, will be released in 2017. She has written for The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Granta and elsewhere.