Flying Shoes by Lisa Howorth
Bloomsbury, 2014; 322 pp
Reviewed by Courtney Craggett
I’ve long been interested in how authors use their real-life trauma in either their fiction or nonfiction. When I heard about Lisa Howorth’s Flying Shoes, then, I was excited to read it. The novel is based on the still-unsolved murder of Lisa Howorth’s stepbrother, who was molested and killed as a boy. One can only imagine how such an event would shape an entire family, and I was eager to see how Howorth, a bookstore owner from Mississippi, would turn that experience into fiction.
Howorth’s approach surprised me. Instead of writing a straightforward mystery story about her brother and how losing a child affects a family, Howorth turns the novel into a portrait of the south and the people who inhabit it. Flying Shoes opens predictably enough: The protagonist, Mary Byrd, receives news that she’s needed in Virginia because her stepbrother’s case has been reopened with new evidence. After that, though, it meanders, stopping for a few chapters with one character before moving onto another.
There is enough action here to make up at least five novels: There’s the recently opened case of the protagonist’s stepbrother, there’s the devastating and unexpected ice storm that paralyzes the city, there’s the housekeeper’s daughter killing her abusive husband, there’s Mary Byrd’s relationships with her husband and children and gay best friend, there’s her affair and then the death of the man with whom she had the affair, there are injuries in the ice storm, there’s the comical free ride with a chicken trucker taking Mary Byrd to Virginia, and the list could go on.
Despite the tremendous amount of action in the novel, Flying Shoes never feels action-heavy, whether it’s following one of the various crimes, injuries, or natural disasters in Mississippi or focusing on the reopened court case. It reads like a character study of the people who make up the south, spending time getting deep into each characters’ head, showing us who they are why each of their stories is important.
My favorite books about trauma are the ones that deal with trauma head-on. It’s so easy to flinch. This is, admittedly, not one of those books. The protagonist pushes her past to the back of her mind until she absolutely must face it, and the plot takes the same approach. So many other things become more important than the reopened court case. Holsworth is doing something interesting here, though, through her meandering, and trying to figure it out kept me reading. I think she explains her choice near the end of the book. She writes of Mary Byrd, “she’d learned early that this is the way the world works, randomly and chaotically, with billions and trillions of stories overlapping and colliding and entangling so that one could never feel that one’s own story was one’s own.”
By the end, this is what the book is about. No single tragedy makes up this novel. Rather, it is a collage of many tragedies, each one important and devastating. The ending of the book I truly loved, because Howorth manages to pull together the various events in the novel into a touching scene that celebrates resilience and the ways that people move on from their pasts and heal.
Although I still prefer novels that tackle trauma directly, I certainly appreciate what Howorth is doing here, and I love seeing how one terrible event can be used to write a novel that becomes not about how one family handles tragedy but about the misfortunes that each and every one of us must face throughout our lives and are perhaps experiencing simultaneously – the “billions and trillions of stories overlapping and colliding and entangling.”