Monday, August 26, 2013

Book Review: A Parliament of Crows


A Parliament of Crows is the story of three women in black.  Always in mourning clothes, creepy and secretive, devious and deadly, they might at first blush appear to be long lost members of the Addams Family or characters drawn by Edward Gorey.  But the women in this novel are inspired by three sisters from history who were anything but humorous.  I found the story of their lives and their crimes to be the very definition of Southern Gothic, and the perfect fodder for a historical fiction.


In A Parliament of Crows, the three Mortlow sisters are prominent American educators of the nineteenth century, considered authorities in teaching social graces to young women.  They also pursue a career of fraud and murder.  Their loyalty to one another and their need to keep their secrets is a bond that tightens with each crime, forcing them closer together and isolating them from the outside world.  Their ever tightening triangle suffers from madness, religious zealotry and a sense of duty warped by trauma they experienced as teenagers in Georgia during Sherman's March to the Sea.  As their crimes come back to haunt them and a long history of resentments toward each other boils to the surface, their bond of loyalty begins to fray.  Will duty to family hold or will they turn on each other like ravening crows?


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The psychosis of history, women left to the ravages of war; survivors from The War Between the States suffering forever from the terror of an upbringing that forever shattered their souls. Alan M. Clark’s A Parliament of Crows is a page-turner that delves into the personal horror of infamous women who endured the torments of time and may have been… unlucky enough to survive. 


While reading this book, I couldn’t help but turn the pages because I wanted to know WHY and HOW these women became who they are. I wanted to know the truth, but more importantly, and I wanted to feel it and witness it. As someone who has read a lot of books in the literary realm, I believed Clark’s book was a discussion on the metamorphosis from humanity to inhumanity and the loss of innocence in the wake of a struggle that would forever change the world. I kept reading because I felt like Clark wasn’t doing enough to make me realize or understand the unraveling of the Mortlow sisters, but Clark’s understanding of storytelling structure delivered a powerful conclusion. Without spoiling the plot, I will say only that the reader is rewarded after becoming a participant in the sequence of events; there isn’t a twist ending, but the emotion you think lies behind the madness of this terrifying history is delivered with a masterstroke that must be admired.

I feel this book almost needs two reviews. From the perspective of a Civil War researcher, I will say this book incorporates and honors the sentiments that have been ingrained in the consciousness that would have suffered the souls of the Morlow sisters. Indeed; it’s not called the Civil War in this book, a simple fact which displays Clark’s commitment to the story. I trusted his knowledge as the story progressed, and I didn’t feel inclined to challenge him. As a self-professed history nerd, I allowed the story to exist in both time and Clark’s imagination, because he sold me on his talents and knowledge.

This is not “historical fiction”. Such a classification demeans the narrative, as a good many readers feel intimidated by history and refused to open their minds to the possibilities of a different cultural mindset. The Mortlow sisters are hardly sympathetic women; there’s not much to like about them or celebrate, but Clark manages to build just enough empathy into one of the sisters for the reader to become invested. Again, no spoilers in this review. You don’t have to know anything about history to join the world Clark reveals to his readers. 

The book seems to read like a summary at times, as Clark gambles with a reader’s patience and tests their willingness to invest in these characters and the mystery that surrounds them. Again, you don’t have to know anything about the Civil War other than the fact that it occurred; the book proves itself to be a quick read because you’re looking for the very reward that Clark gives, at last, in a moment of triumphant storytelling which reveals craftsmanship and character-investment. 

The Mortlow sisters will be off-putting to some readers who aren’t interested in damnation, victimization, or character development. By analyzing the histories of infamous people who’ve passed into the realm of myth, the writer acknowledges that any reader can simply GOOGLE the characters and find out how the book ends. The strength of the writer lies in the ability to provide a rationale while exploring the inner workings of a generational and personal psychosis. 

A pleasant surprise. Highly recommend. 4.5 stars… rounding up.