“Leah fell asleep outside the night after her brother disappeared, outside to get away from the sounds inside, and she saw two little girls in brilliant calico dresses walk from the garage and climb up the maple tree. They didn’t come down, not that she saw. The night was silent. The stars were silent. The grass was silent. The world was empty.” – Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky
Once in a while you come across a wild, profound, terrifying, beautiful book that reminds you of the ways in which literature is such a beautiful art form. Then, sometimes, you look up the author and find that once upon a time they dropped a book like this and it’s also their only work to date, which makes the mind reel. Did creating this story with its intricate narrative consume all the literary energy they had to give? Was it the work of years, and maybe they’re crafting another such book right now? Or did they just wake up one day with an idea for a completely devastating novel, release it into the world, and decide they were done? David Connerly Nahm wrote his only full-length novel Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky in 2014, and he has a minimal online presence excepting an interview or podcast guest spot, a rarity in the social media age. This was a disappointment to me only in the sense that it didn’t take long into my reading to realize this novel was a work of art, and once I’d finished the rollercoaster of dramatic intrigue stretching through the course of Ancient Oceans, I immediately wanted another ride.
Nahm employs suspense incredibly well to keep readers hooked throughout a very poetic novel that, lacking sufficient levels of ghostly intrigue, may have gone over a lot of peoples’ heads. (Honestly, if you prefer a straight-to-the-point storytelling style with no additional commentary or complex themes, this still might not be the book for you.) But Nahm knits together a stream of consciousness style and third person perspective in his book that creates an eerie, almost out-of-body narrative voice to tell the story of Leah, a woman whose entire life as it exists in the present of the book was defined by a traumatic event in her childhood, the disappearance of her little brother Jacob. It is through Leah’s perspective that we’re shown the rural Kentucky town of Crow Station (heavily influenced by Danville, Kentucky) and the people who live there, many of whom Leah has known her entire life. This cast of personalities fills out Crow Station’s tableau of those who, in the course of the book’s two acts, live, alternately carve out joy or succumb to cruelty, struggle for survival financially and philosophically and leave their mark on the ever-shrinking pocket of Kentucky in which they are fated to live and die and leave behind their stories to haunt generations to come, and even the land itself.
A deep understanding of folkloric themes is obvious in Nahm’s narrative as he employs both the suspense of gradually uncovering the truth of Jacob’s loss and elements of ghost stories throughout the book to engage readers and to suggest the possibility of the supernatural as a running theme. From Leah’s childhood remembrances of local ghost stories to the way the actions of one generation can define not just their life but linger in the experiences of their children, heritage and memory are explored by Nahm as he gradually strips away layers of forgotten or misremembered events in the rural, underfunded and fading town to bring some of the threads of the plot to light, while raising even more questions about others.
Ancients Oceans parallels ghost stories – and specifically, regionally, the concept of haints – with themes of being haunted by the past, the choices and events that constitute a life. As the novel progresses, early references to random snapshots of events that initially felt poetic in purpose are revealed as moments in the lives of the orbiting side characters. And throughout, courtesy of the guilty memories of a very unreliable narrator, readers find themselves trying to solve the unsolved mystery of what really happened to seven-year-old Jacob Shepherd, but also, in what form and for what purpose has he perhaps returned?
Nahm drew from his own life experiences for his portrayal of rural Kentucky, as well as different scenes and snippets of dialogue throughout the book. In an interview leading up to its release he said “While I remember myself as a kind older brother—though maybe a touch dictatorial—to this day I am sometimes filled with an ill-feeling when I abruptly remember some long past misdeed: A time I wrestled my brother and hurt him on purpose because I was mad or when I failed to stand up for my sisters when they were teased in a playground. It is this inability to let these things go that informed Leah and Jacob’s relationship—or, more accurately, her memory of their relationship.” These added layers make the novel deeply personal and honestly, more than a little vulnerable in a way that I as a reader physically sensed. As an older sister who, being a child herself, occasionally picked at her younger sibling and resented being followed around, Leah’s guilty memories of her childhood relationship with her brother – including her occasional bullying – definitely stung. Readers are often presented with unflattering anecdotes of ways she was unkind to him prior to his disappearance, what some would call typical sibling behavior that became magnified in her memory once he was gone. In a climactic scene, Leah, the quintessential unreliable narrator, discloses a new and crucial piece of information to readers who have spent the last couple of hundred pages learning every detail about her life and may have assumed that, having been inside her mind, there was nothing left for her to hide.
The unavoidable point of tension and confrontation in that scene and an ending that can be interpreted any number of ways almost require the reader to sit in judgment on Leah and decide whether or not to absolve her of her childhood sins. I personally found myself poring over different aspects of Leah’s story and I still have no concrete answers, but while I’m sure Nahm knows the truth of what was factual or imagined in his narrative, the potential for conversation and dissection of the events of the story make this the perfect book club book, in my opinion. I could discuss it for ages, and unfortunately for the people in my life who don’t enjoy speculative fiction, I will most likely be doing so for the foreseeable future.
I would recommend Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky to fans of Kentucky authors, Southern Gothic themes, family-centric dramas, and books you’re still thinking about in the car on the way to work the next day.
– Review by Sarah, Main Library