The Everlasting: A Novel
By Katy Simpson Smith
“Everlasting” entwines two thousand years in Rome, but speaks to our time
By Scott Naugle
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger
USA TODAY NETWORK
A novel about the endurance of the human spirit, love, desire, and the interdependence of every living organism across the millennia, could not arrive at a more appropriate time in this moment of panic and pandemic. The Everlasting, by Katy Simpson Smith, is a lush, intellectually challenging, and sensuous pleasure, an escape from the gloom of a malevolent intruder.
I must be transparent. Katy Simpson Smith is a friend of many years. While we did not know one another at the time, we were adjunct professors several years ago on the New Orleans campus of Tulane, Katy in the art department and me in English. We might have passed by one another between classes. At the time, I was 6’6”, big-boned, and flailing against the whirlpool of middle-age, and Katy, young, thin, agile and bright as a ray of unfiltered sun. I know I would have remembered her eyes, blue, wide open, and eternally searching.
The truth is that if I did not care for The Everlasting, I simply would not review it.
Katy Simpson Smith earned a PhD in history from the University of North Carolina and an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She is the author of the nonfiction work “We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the South: 1750 – 1835” and the novels “The Story of Land and Sea” and “Free Men.” She lives in New Orleans.
Spanning two thousand years in Rome during four different centuries, “The Everlasting” interweaves the stories of Prisca, a young Christian martyr circa 150 CE, the monk Felix in 896 CE who lusts after a boyhood friend, the wealthy Giulia de’ Medici and her unborn, unwanted child in the 16th century, to the modern day biologist Tom, waffling in a tepid marriage.
Among the many strengths of this novel are the author’s attention to descriptive detail in advancing the story, “The market was behind the moneylender’s: a widening where the streets converged, room enough for a coffle of men and women fresh from the empire’s edges to be looped together with ropes, sheened with oil, offered to passersby.”
Good description tells us more than the color of the walls or the pitch of the hero’s voice, but rather pulls us into the story, layering the narrative with possible subtexts, deepening the pool of possibilities, reaching into the subconscious to conjure and color the narrative.
“The streets converged,” may be a reference, perhaps, to the unacknowledged impact that each of the characters in the novel have upon one another. Consider the “coffle of men and women,” humanity tethered together “with oil,” an effluent allusion, possibly, to our genes and blood, shared histories determining the fates of Prisca, Felix, Giulia, Tom, and by inference, maybe, meant as a harbinger for us all.
I love the playfulness of the multiple narrative voices and the insertion of a bracketed omniscient presence throughout the story, “[Don’t let the next world lure you; the threshold may seem to be wavering, but your goodness will vault you to a place where you’ll lose what you love: rich, wrong humanity.]”
This is metafiction, where an author, or narrator, directly inserts him or herself into the narrative, a commentary in real time as we read. [Author William H. Gass uses this technique to great effect in “Omensetter’s Luck,” one of the great novels of the twentieth century and a favorite novel of mine.]
This all sounds intellectual, stuffy, philosophically airheaded, but through the pen of Smith it is engrossing. The characters are deep and full, suspense builds across every page, and most importantly, we care about what happens to each of them.
The physical body will pass, but our innate desire for relevance, the incorporeal essence we cannot see but is felt, lies at the heart of The Everlasting. “Humans are change. Once you take humans away, you’ve got to remove mammals, then vertebrates, and then whatever’s not . . . and then you’re back to stardust.”
You are a bold writer, Katy Simpson Smith. Brava!
Scott Naugle is a resident of Pass Christian, Mississippi and the co-owner of Pass Christian Books/Cat Island Coffeehouse.