Julia Keller’s “Sorrow Road” continues the story of Bell Elkins, the feisty, wise, strong-willed district attorney for Raythune County, and Acker’s Gap, where the county courthouse is and where Bell Elkins lives. It’s a small West Virginia town in the middle of coal country, and it’s where she grew up.
Bell is a charismatic protagonist, and Keller gives her great depth of character and great strength. But at the same time, Bell is vulnerable. She makes mistakes like the rest of us, and when it comes to mothering her now-adult daughter, she is as insecure about her decisions as anyone.
Keller manages to include just enough of the backstory so that new readers won’t feel lost when there is information that comes from the previous books about Bell and her family and friends. Bell’s backstory is shared a bit — not as fully as in previous stories but enough to give readers the information they need to understand Bell’s actions.
While Keller writes mysteries, they are not “just” mysteries. Her stories are also poetry with a plot. Keller’s writing includes her thoughtful commentary on life, or in this case, on dementia:
“Most people were brought here against their wills, angry and confused, by family members at the end of their tether. Their minds were disintegrating, piece by piece, like that early morning fog as the day advanced, and the internal violence of the loss — the terrible whirling flight of reason, the fleeing of memory — should somehow be palpable, Bell thought. There should be panic radiating from the outer walls like a heat signature on an infrared map. No one ought to give up the core of themselves without a struggle. No one should let the memories go without a fight.”
Keller intertwines the past with the present and makes both come alive. Her characters — even the weak, immoral ones — are pathetic in the sense that the reader will feel compassion for some, but not all, of them. Many are victims of a tragic life. Through her characters and their shortcomings and tragic pasts, Keller forces readers to think about what forms a person’s character. Can a person grow up to be a good, moral person in spite of a horrendous childhood laced with cruelty beyond imagining?
Keller’s stories about Bell Elkins and Acker’s Gap are brilliant novels filled with fascinating characters and precarious situations that keep the pages turning. Be forewarned, her books are addictive.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Minotaur Books for review purposes.