Tuesday, January 31, 2012

South of Broad, by Pat Conroy

South of Broad, by Pat Conroy $38.99 - March 2010 

A friend described Pat Conroy’s writing style as one that uses a hundred words where one would normally suffice.  But while this extravagant use of words may slow your entrance into South of Broad, do not let it deter you.  Through the voice of young Leo King, Conroy introduces the reader to Charleston, South Carolina in 1960 - a city with a long history of segregation, by both class and colour.

As a boy Leo discovers the body of his brother in the bathtub and subsequently spends some time in a mental institution. He also gets in trouble with the law, but despite these setbacks Leo seems to be a happy self-contained young man with a caring father and a formidable but fair mother who happens to be the principal at Leo’s high school, where his father also works.  In the early part of the novel Leo shares fascinating details of his city with the reader as he cycles the streets hurling newspapers onto his customers’ front porches. 

There is so much detail in this novel. To just quickly sketch the basics, the novel starts at the beginning of a high school summer when some new arrivals at Leo’s school and neighbourhood form the nucleus of a group of friends that transcends and challenges Charleston’s traditions.  A year of transformation follows; but happenstance has brought them together and will take them forward to when the reader meets them again in 1989. At this time the group undertakes a challenging expedition to San Francisco to track down one of their cohorts, a journey that thrusts them into the midst of the reality of the AIDS epidemic and also the truth of their own pasts.

Beautifully written, South of Broad has humour, lightness and depth.  The extravagant language takes you on a journey that cycles through these people’s lives and loves and will have you laughing and also shedding a quiet tear. Conroy is well known for previous novels, The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides - both some years ago. It has been a bit of a wait for this novel, but well worth it.    

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