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Fiction Review    

A Broken Thing
by Marlin Barton
Frederic C. Beil, Publisher, 2003
Hardcover, $24.95 (258 pages)
ISBN: 1929490208



Marlin Barton, whose collection of short fiction, The Dry Well, received high honors and much critical acclaim several years ago, has written a wonderful novel that resonates with deep feeling long after the final page has been read.

Barton, who lives in Montgomery, Alabama, sets his story partially there but mostly in small communities of Alabama’s Black Belt, an area he knows well. He knows the people, the country stores, the churches, the schools, the rivers and the streets. He puts you in these places with the feel, the smell, the look, the way the breeze blows off the water or the way the trees turn just the right shade of green at certain times of the year.

A Broken Thing is a tour de force of understated emotional dynamite, ready to explode at the next tick of the fragile time bomb that lies just beneath the surface of this group of people, once a family. Each of the novelist’s characters is so finely delineated, so perfectly honed to a sharp edge, we know them the way we know our own close kin.

Because Marlin Barton exercises his craft with the deft hand of a master, we care deeply for each of these people. We hurt for their frailties that are revealed through a series of scenes that unfold as naturally as a walk through a pasture or a ride down to a boat landing to watch a sunset.

“Simplicity is greatness,” my old creative writing professor Hudson Strode proclaimed to his class of college students with regularity. If his maxim is true, Marlin Barton has achieved that high honor in his novel. Using short chapters told from the points-of-view of various family members, he chooses his pieces much the same way a quiltmaker lays out her designs in an intermittent, recurring, complex pattern so that, when the quilt is finished, the complexity is hidden within its startling beauty. If you had not seen all those tiny pieces being cut out and placed just so, if you had not been aware of each piece being stitched with precise artistry, you wouldn’t recognize the difficulty of the tedious work.

First, the author flashes a quick snapshot from the past. It is faded yellow with age, although the words are bright and cheerful. You are not sure exactly who you are seeing here in this happy scene. It does not appear to be the same folks you begin seeing in edgy sharpness as the sad scenes begin unfolding. Then it comes to you and you know, and it makes the sadness of its happy flavor even sadder.

Using three three-month periods of time in the mid-1970s, the novelist weaves together the stories of Seth, the young boy who has witnessed his mother Laura and his father Conrad parting as a couple. Only four months after the separation, he and his mother return to the small Black Belt community of Valhia for the funeral of the boy’s grandmother, her mother.

“It was gray and polished, shining almost, like a new car or something just unloaded and sitting down at the Pontiac place right in the middle of Valhia. It would have been shining as bright as any car there if it hadn’t been for that big green tent without the sides that was pitched over it, and over us too, blocking out the sun, but not the heat.” Thus begins tale of the people all corralled under that side-less tent, captured there instantly, all together: Laura, her older son Michael, Seth with his daddy Conrad. Later, we hear from Conrad’s mother, May, and an earlier letter from Laura’s mother, Emily. Each has his or her own cross to bear. Each is right in his or her own way.

What happens when these runaway trains begin to collide is the essence of Marlin Barton’s significant story, A Broken Thing, brought together in bits and pieces, trying to make something whole. And by putting together all of the pieces, the novelist makes something bigger and better and greater than the sum of all the parts. 


Wayne Greenhaw
Southern Scribe Reviews


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