WESTLAND

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The characters of pre–American Civil War era Essie’s Roses are back in Westland, an Alabama plantation where the “willows hold secrets, until the night air sweeps through their leaves, scattering them in the wind and into our ears.” In Muriel’s debut novel, Katie, the White heiress to Westland, saw an unlikely friendship blossom between her daughter Evie and a formerly enslaved Black woman, Essie Mae, at the outbreak of the American Civil War. This book opens with Evie and Essie Mae returning home after Katie’s death from illness. In post–Civil War Alabama, they deal with past traumas involving racist and gendered violence. They try to revive friendships and dreams while still protecting Westland from those who would burn it down. Threatening letters sent to Evie’s stepfather, James, lead the two women to try to unravel the tangled threads of their past. The novel explores themes of forgiveness, freedom, and found families through the voices of diverse women: Katie, Evie, Essie Mae, and Black matriarch and housekeeper Delly. The multiple perspectives put the focus on what is perhaps the novel’s most complex character—Westland itself—and its essential nature. Questions of what it means to be free and independent as a woman, and especially as a Black woman, are addressed with nuance and care through Evie’s and Essie Mae’s voices. Yet despite the careful worldbuilding, the author is prone to occasional anachronisms; for example, a character uses the term “dissociative identity disorder,” coined in 1994, in the novel’s late-1800s setting. Roses are used throughout as clichéd metaphors: “its distracting blossom makes you forget it sprouts thorns, that when touched, prick the skin.” However, the plot is skillfully structured, with dramatic truths revealed unexpectedly.

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