America’s most murderous conflict, the Civil War of 1861–5, formally ended in a courthouse at Appomattox, but as Kevin Powers’s fine second novel reminds us, the story of the ‘War between the States’ was far from over when Robert E Lee and Ulysses S Grant signed their peace accord. A Shout in the Ruins offers a vivid sense of just how much trauma was both engendered and endured during the relatively murky period of Reconstruction, which ran from the end of the war until 1877, and during the long decades that followed.
Ranging across time and following several characters whose lives become entangled by chance, family connection and conflict, Powers returns here – with similar, admirable compression – to themes he took up in his celebrated debut, The Yellow Birds, about an American soldier’s difficult homecoming from Iraq. This novel, also set in and around Richmond, Virginia, where Powers is from, casts its net more widely than its predecessor. The Yellow Birds spoke powerfully to its moment, but A Shout in the Ruins illuminates an entire lost era, one that might, in significant part, best be summed up by the whip marks that score a minor character’s arms, ‘a topography of the passage of time and pain one on top of the other, a map in miniature of ridgeline and ravine going up into his shirtsleeves in an uninterrupted pattern’.
The novel’s ambition is considerable and the weave necessarily complex. The lives of plantation owners, slaves, deserters, Croatan outlaws, officers, ferrymen, orphans, waitresses, shopkeepers and artists glimpsed before, during and after the war all intertwine. There are multiple focal points. We see through the eyes of a murderous Frenchman,