"ALL THE LIVING," by C.E. Morgan; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 199 pages, $23
Love. Freedom. Belonging. All are goals sought far and wide.
In "All the Living," by C.E. Morgan, they are the common threads that bind.
Aloma is an orphan. Following her parents' deaths, she goes to live with her aunt and uncle, who treat her well enough but have nine people to care for.
So when the opportunity comes to send her to a Kentucky mission school the month before she turns 12, the decision makes sense.
At the mission school, Aloma learns to play the piano. Playing becomes her passion, and soon she's advanced to private lessons from a woman who had a music degree from up East. Her goal is to go away to college and further her skills, but following graduation, a lack of money keeps her at the school as staff pianist.
During her time as a teacher, Aloma meets Orren, a college farm boy. It doesn't take long before the two fall in love, spending hours together every day.
When Orren's family dies in an accident, Aloma travels to their isolated tobacco farm with plans to marry Orren. But marriage is put on the backburner as Orren works to save the farm from drought.
Aloma struggles with her new life on the farm. There she finds a loneliness she has never known. Orren has become combative and taciturn, making her question whether she should have come in the first place.
In search of some happiness, Aloma gains a position as a pianist at the church Orren's mother attended. There the church's young preacher offers her friendship that only serves to complicate her growing dissatisfaction.
Despite her frustration, Aloma loves Orren, and she soon finds herself faced with the decision of whether to stay or go out on her own in search of freedom.
Dreams and reality collide in "All the Living." It brings about questions of faith, friendship and desires. Morgan captures these themes and that of poverty with a simplicity and moving grace that calms the reader even in the tensest situations.
Morgan's unique style does take some getting used to — no chapters and the lack of quote marks. And "All the Living" isn't a page-turner type of novel. Morgan's prose thoughtfully meanders from one page to the next, bringing the reader along at comfortable, but slow, pace.
"All the Living" won't appeal to everyone. Some will find scenes of physical intimacy too revealing and its tempo takes some getting used to. Overall, however, "All the Living" is a beautifully descriptive debut novel.