Buzzed Books #81 by Drew Barth
Alyson Hagy’s Scribe
Let’s talk about magic realism. Magic realism is kind of odd and nebulous in how it behaves, but a reader always knows it when they see it. Magic realism gives off a feeling of being immersed, being familiar and yet not. These senses all come together with Alyson Hagy’s Scribe, a novel that centers around an unnamed woman renowned for her ability to write letters. She’s asked by a man named Hendricks to write and deliver a letter for him, but this request, throughout the course of the story, is made more difficult by the machinations of horrible people around them. Scribe is a novel centered on wants and needs—of what can be given and taken by individuals before consequences rain down like angry locusts.
Hagy does something spectacular when she draws on an Appalachian loneliness to drive Scribe forward. Abandoned homesteads, dried riverbeds, old homes built by hand, and a constant sense of unease that permeates our main character’s soul. The loneliness and unease here are unique to their location. Myths and legends of the area, as well as the two sisters themselves, have already taken root and this informs the sheer believability and depth of Hagy’s world building. This is a world after some kind of civil war. Which one? Don’t worry about it. The war happened and this is the aftereffect. And this is a part of the beauty of the story as well: it’s very much rooted in a specific time, but feels timeless all the same. Hagy completely immerses us in the world she’s created, one that is foreign and absolutely familiar. And this goes back to the Appalachian loneliness, this unique blend of hearth fire smells and disquiet about what’s beyond the trees just out of sight.
This sense of unease that the setting reinforces only bolsters the sense of magic that permeates Hagy’s words. She’s built legends, yes, but legends exist in the past. She likewise mythologizes the present, letting the unnamed woman and Hendricks experience aspects of the world that are unbelievable but accepted. Trumpet horns from nothing, speaking in her dead sister’s voice, the presence of a group known only as the Uninvited. The world is informed by magic and myth; shaped by a chisel of realism. The story lets its magic flow freely, showing us with a lyrical eye the jarring and the beautiful in equal measure. The magic doesn’t save or delight. It is a magic that informs and heralds desolation as it rolls down our main characters.
Scribe is a novel of wonder and desperation. The story gives us a landscape painted in language both beautiful and uncanny while populating it with the kind of people who would murder for their debts. It’s a world that exists in a way only Hagy’s lyricism can show. Every page is a song sung by a blind man with a guitar in an empty train station. The words are raw, coarse in a way that is almost grating, but still billows with a beautiful sense of wonderment throughout.
Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.