Sarah Jane narrates of her own story in James Sallis’ Sarah Jane. Her personal story is complex, taking intriguing twists and turns. On one hand, she lives a fairly mundane and common life, but on the other, she has run-ins with violence, domestic abuse, and love. Take a country bump-kin, daddy’s favorite, an educated literary graduate, and a chef mix them all together, shake well, and you’ve got Sarah Jane.
The structure James Sallis uses to present the story defies classical story structure norms. The first 25% of the book is Sarah Jane telling us her backstory. It’s 80% telling and 20% showing. Dialogue is presented in summarization rather than actual people talking, he has flashbacks on his flashback, and he introduces many characters with so little description or backstory of their own. Now going against standard practices? Well, I had to read on, if only to figure out Sallis’ narrative device.
It was jarring at first, all this backstory. But Sallis’ execution of it, the back and forth, the future and past, mixed with an odd combination of stark objectivity and heightened emotion, resulted in an intriguing beginning.
Around the 30% mark, Sarah Jane herself says right out – this is where my story begins. A series of seemingly unrelated choices, along with an unassuming man with an even more checkered past than Sarah Jane’s, contribute to her being named sheriff of a small town. An unlikely profession for someone with her background. And troubles.
In the end, (no spoilers) the unconventional beginning circles back to round out the story of Sarah Jane. Nicely done Mr. Sallis.
What’s it About?
Externally, the novel is about Sarah Jane, but internally, it’s about our humanity. Our view of ourselves, others, and the judgments we make. Sarah Jane is flawed. All the characters are flawed. But each brings a unique perspective and reminders us––we are more than our flaws.
The book has won many awards listed below. With this many awards, I wonder if readers are starving for something outside the standard “Hero’s Journey” structure. Something fresh and unique. Something like Sarah Jane.
– New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice – New York Times Best Crime Novel of 2019 – Financial Times Best Book of 2019 – Publishers Weekly Big Indie Book for Fall 2019 – Library Journal__ Best Crime Fiction of 2019 – LitHub’s Best Noir Fiction of 2020 – Finalist for the 2020 Macavity Award for Best Mystery Novel