Title: The Steep & Thorny Way
Author: Cat Winters
Genre: Young Adult, Mystery, Magical Realism
Rating: ★★☆☆☆ | 2.5 out of 5
I’ve been listening to a lot of songs that give me southern gothic vibes lately. That, coupled with the fact that I’m currently in Georgia and the fact that I’ve been marathoning Preacher means that The Steep and Thorny Way has been exactly the kind of novel I’m looking for. Moody, stormy, a revenge narrative smack dab in the middle of Nowhere, Oregon, where the glamour of the ’20s seems to have packed its bags and skipped out of town.
Hannalee Denney is the only biracial girl in the rural town of Elston, and her father the only Black man, until his death at the hands of a reckless driver. But Hannalee and her mother are trying to move forward. Her mother’s married the local physician, and Hannalee is adapting to this new life. But then her father’s murderer gets released, and he’s telling a story different from the one she heard. According to him, Hannalee’s new stepfather is the one who killed Hank Denney.
If the title wasn’t enough of a giveaway, the novel is a loose reconfiguration of Hamlet set in rural Oregon, complete with chilling ghosts and possible poison and the presence of the Klu Klux Klan. And friends, I really wasn’t sold. I really admire books with a commitment to concept and that would have been necessary to the success of this novel.There are ways of grounding the supernatural into more realistic portrayals of racism and homophobia and I think this was really well done in Libba Bray’s Diviners series, but this necessitates the author to be willing to take the idea of the supernatural to its logical extremes. But Steep & Thorny Way kept pulling back, much to the detriment not only of the atmosphere, but also of the overall narrative.
This wouldn’t have actually made me quit the novel, though, because I’ve read a lot of novels that failed to live up to their concepts but still turned out pretty enjoyable. What made this novel join the 33% club was its clunky writing and complete lack of subtlety. This is likely a result of Winters wanting to address a lot of the racism and homophobia in the time period she’s writing in, so I can’t really fault her for it, but the writing was so heavy-handed the process of reading became the hardest part of the narrative. Sometimes a light touch is all that’s needed.
Character interactions make no sense. Conversations go from Point A to Planet X in the space of a few sentences, and rather than feeling organic, they feel as if they have agendas: the point of Paragraph Z was to convey Y information. Characterisation is also all over the place. It’s as if the novel got so caught up in its messaging that it forgot that it had a story to tell. Which is really such a shame, because it would have been an interesting one.