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Fiction Review    

 

 

Coiled in the Heart
By Scott Elliott
Blue Hen Books, 2004
Trade paper, $14.00 (291 pages)
ISBN: 0-425-19701-8
 
 
 

Is it tempting the literary gods to wish that a three hundred page first novel be longer? Probably, but Scott Elliott’s highly readable Coiled in the Heart delivers a light, tantalizing outline of a tale that leaves us wanting more. While Elliott’s work fully succeeds as a contemporary novel of manners set in fictive Haven, Tennessee, replete with plenty of brand names and up to date cultural references, it is perhaps better read as a fable of the New South at odds with the Old and its legacies, both personal and collective.

The setting of Coiled in the Heart seems a mixture of both Tennessee as well as Kentucky, with a comical/serious New Madrid fault sub-plot supplying an element of local color. The novel weaves together the not quite accidental death of a child with the personal quest of its narrator, Tobia Caldwell, latest son of a genteel southern family, as he attempts to reclaim the Caldwell patrimony from a rising tide of affluent suburban sprawl.

Elliott’s “southern” credentials include a Lexington, Kentucky, childhood and a degree from Vanderbilt, so it is no surprise to find him wrestling with the traditional subjects of southern literature—family, place, race, and the inescapability of the past. In its decline the Caldwells bear a resemblance to one of Walker Percy’s families, with a patrician father (alcoholic), a beautiful (and doting) mother, and a sensitive (football hero) son.  Peter Taylor’s work also shows up as a significant influence here, especially with regard to the novel’s tight portraiture of upper class southern mores.

The characters are extremely lifelike even if they and their relationships are not always fully drawn. Tobia Caldwell says and does (with one tragic exception) all the right things to attract our sympathy but remains nevertheless emotionally unavailable . . . which perhaps is the point, since Elliott’s narrator carries a deep psychic wound that may or may not be made whole by the novel’s conclusion. Coiled in the Heart keeps its audience in enough suspense that we remain curious as to the novel’s resolution though we never lose interest in the events themselves as they unfold.

If there is a feeling of incompleteness at the end of this book it is perhaps attributable to Elliott’s prodigality with his material. A more frugal writer might have harvested two novels here. If that is any indication of his promise, the author’s debut will be interesting to reread in light of his subsequent work.

 

Vince Brewton
Southern Scribe Reviews

 

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