Come Away From Her by Samuel W. Gailey

Cover art lately has been impressive all across the industry but y’all, look at this gorgeous thing. It’s even prettier than the Kiki Smith etching that inspired the book, in my opinion anyway.

And in my opinion? Come Away From Her reads like Marilynne Robinson deciding to turn her hand at commercial fiction a la Liane Moriarty, with strong Grace Metalious overtones (in case it wasn’t clear, this is a compliment, and a pretty darned lavish one at that.) Set in the 1980s in small town Pennsylvania, this is a book about secrets, violence and redemption, and I was straight up crying through the end of it. I did not manage to finish this in a single sitting as Julia, the publicist who pressed this on me (for which I’m forever grateful!) did, but I’ve also had to contend with poor health and even needier than usual children this past week. Reading and writing have been a bit of a struggle, but this book was absolutely worth fighting through the fog to finish.

As our story opens, Pastor Cap is hungover after yet another bender. He exits his church to find a murder of crows just outside. Trying to shoo them away, he finally sees what they’re obscuring: the bloody corpse of a very murdered person.

Rewind fifteen days and the town of Black Walnut is getting ready for Easter. Cap is immersed in his own perpetual crisis of faith, even as his part-time assistant Robin is trying to figure out how to persuade her abusive drunkard of a husband to find a job for the sake of their three small kids. Maggie, the volunteer in charge of the Easter parade, has husband trouble of her own, even as her son Butch is suffering through bullying in middle school. Into this volatile mix ricochets Tess, a deaf woman from out of town who has started to believe that the only way she can outrun her problems is by embracing death.

As the connections between these five are revealed and established, bonds and tensions begin to build. But who will wind up dead outside Cap’s church, and who will be the killer?

The plotting in this novel is phenomenal as we switch between our viewpoint characters — which, in addition to the five above, includes Wade, Maggie’s husband — to establish the complicated truths about life in Black Walnut. And, because it’s set in the 1980s, there’s a palpable sense of shame hanging over things that readers in the 2020s know better than to blame the victim for (or should know anyway.) It’s genuinely unsettling to experience this snapshot of how different things used to be within my own lifetime. Arguably, the fact that things are much better now is due to the growing number of people just like these characters, who learn the value of love, compassion and community, forgiving each other and themselves for their own often desperate reactions to being the targets of cruelty, as Samuel W Gailey so excellently portrays.

If anything, I think there were bits in this novel that could have been leaned into more, writing-wise. While CAFH has plenty of heart in its overall philosophy and nimbleness in its suspenseful plotting, I felt that the book would have benefited from even more self-interrogation than it’s afforded here. I could have easily read another hundred pages of these characters’ interiority, particularly Wade and Maggie, and Robin at the end. The book is great as is, but I’m still greedy for more of Mr Gailey’s sensitive, terrifically written explorations of these compelling characters’ psyches.

Come Away From Her by Samuel W. Gailey was published January 10 2023 and is available from all good booksellers, including

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