Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman
“an old story of injustice brought creatively to new life by an award-winning writer.”
This is a book you have to slow down and pay attention to, because there’s a lot going on. Layers of story. Complex characterization. Rich details of time and place.
The title is our guide to what to expect: mayhem. But it’s not the loud and drastic kind; rather, except for one event, it’s the insidious kind that arises from breaking the rules of a strict society.
During the early 1900s in southern Texas, a tight group of German immigrants brings its lifestyles and ethics with them to build new lives in a new land. One of their cultural imperatives is, “What people think of you, and your family, matters.”
Oh, how it does. Part of this concept is everyone has their place, including woman, whose job is to be submissive helpmeet and breeder. The depersonalization of woman into voiceless property is what causes this sad tale.
Evelyn Gant, a compliant and nurturing person, attempts to communicate to her husband that another man is giving her problems of a threateningly sexual nature. The husband dismisses her concerns, until the day when things go too far and she is irrevocably compromised—and the husband takes revenge in “a crime whose mention makes men cross their legs.”
The author, who participates in the story as a nameless narrator between alternating characters’ viewpoints, sneaks us up to this crime. Most people in contemporary America are familiar with stories of rape and retribution—violent to begin with and violent to the end.
In this case, the first crime is coercive but nonviolent and much less appalling than the punishment. What the woman’s violation means is more important than what actually happens to her. The prosecutable crime comes from another man’s revenge, and its fallout poisons the community. As Evelyn marvels, “how much has followed from how little.”
But because of it, “when she ceased to be his wife, she had ceased to exist,” giving her nowhere to go and no one to be.
Although Mayhem is her story, she seems more like a figurehead for the real story, which is the backstory. It is presented as a tapestry showing that this happened because all that happened, but you have to know it all in order to understand the one thing that changed everything.
The trigger event is about “that few seconds of a thing in a hole that male animals lived for and women were stuck trying to regulate. Because of babies. Because people believed a woman’s honor resided at the entrance of that hole. Because—there was another reason, but in the growing roar all civilization seemed to have broken down and she could not think what it was.”
Each scene of the narrative is built around day-to-day tasks, capturing simple yet compelling moments that bring alive the setting and period. Sometimes it gets confusing, because there are so many generations and relations and viewpoint changes and tense switches. Evelyn is offstage for chunks of the book, making it difficult to know who or what to focus on.
But that’s our cue we’re in a story about family and culture as well as the person who is a product and victim thereof. She feels like an iceberg tip in a dark and stormy sea.
Mayhem is an old story of injustice brought creatively to new life by an award-winning writer. Thoughtful readers who enjoy literary historical fiction will add it to their must-read list.