Here Lies by Olivia Clare Friedman

Here Lies
By Olivia Clare Friedman
Grove Atlantic
Hardback, 208 pages

Prose dazzles in debut dystopian novel of climate-ravaged Louisiana

By Mary Garner Rees
Special to the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger

A transcendental novel from Mississippi’s own Olivia Clare Friedman, “Here Lies” is a moving examination of how far a person will go for those she loves.

The year is 2042. Unsurprisingly, climate change has ravaged the world. “Scientists told us measurements, showed the changes happening the way they’d predicted, worse than that,” Alma says. In an effort to salvage the shrinking amount of livable land, the U.S. government deems human burial illegal. Not only that: graveyards are altogether shut down, and the dead are required to be cremated.

In Louisiana, 22-year-old Alma grapples with the loss of her mother, Naomi, to ovarian cancer. Despite Naomi’s dying wish of being buried, the law demands that her ashes be held by the state. Desperate to give Naomi the resting place she desired, Alma applies for a dispensation in order to reclaim her mother’s ashes. When her request is denied, Alma sets her sights on an alternative–albeit illegal–route towards honoring Naomi’s request.

Along the way, Alma meets a pregnant 19-year-old named Bordelon. Bordelon is in the throes of her own grief from the passing of the grandmother who raised her. In no time, the two form a bond built upon their shared trauma as well as their efforts to distract one another from it. When it becomes clear that Bordelon is homeless, the two begin living together in Alma’s family home.

With a little help from an underground group of burial rights activists, particularly a woman named Josephine, Alma finds a solution to her problem. When meeting Josephine for the first time, Alma and Bordelon find a woman whose overflowing garden and kindhearted countenance act as a balm for their sorrow. “I felt it calm me, open channels up and through my body,” Alma says of Josephine’s empathetic gaze.

Friedman spends the majority of her time building the characters rather than the setting of the story. Twenty years from now, much of the world is not as dystopian as typical futuristic novels. Alma partakes in familiar pastimes like frequenting the local library, watching her television ad nauseum, and driving a gas-guzzling car. The focal point of careful characterization creates an exploration of the human psyche that likely would have been lost otherwise.

 “Here Lies” is haunting in its bureaucratization of death. In a dystopian South, the concept of “choice” is diminishing just as the bright green forests do the same. The line between humanity and cruelty is uniquely questioned by Friedman’s investigation of a world in which human beings have no say in their eternal resting place. So, too, is the thought that everything and nothing can change in the blink of an eye.

While the plot of the novel is intriguing, what really shines is Friedman’s prose. Rarely does a writer captivate me so thoroughly with such expertly crafted style. Friedman’s use of language is simply stunning. She possesses a lyricism that mesmerizes the reader enough to simultaneously speed read and yearn to read at a glacial pace. Perhaps this is the ethereal beauty of a poet venturing into fiction writing. If so, I will henceforth be reading exclusively poet-written novels.

Olivia Clare Friedman is currently an assistant professor in the English department of the University of Southern Mississippi. She has written a short story collection called “Disasters in the First World” and a book of poetry called “The 26-Hour Day.” This is her debut novel.

Mary Garner Rees is a writer from Madison and a former bookseller at Lemuria Books. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling at Mississippi College.


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