In the small lake town where LuLu, Rainey, and Saul are growing up, day-to-day life is anything but easy. Navigating the usual obstacles of youth would be enough for anyone, but for this trio a world marred by the Vietnam War, detached parents, and untimely death create circumstances overloaded with trouble. Yet through their unyielding resourcefulness and the willingness to expose their vulnerabilities, these three friends discover deeper bonds than even they could ever imagine.
Told through kaleidoscopic images and in prose that will keep you on the edge of your seat, Sybelia Drive is a story of three friends who push beyond the typical woes of childhood into teenage years transformed by the shared baggage of a generation, years when men walk on the moon; students are killed during a peace demonstration at Kent State; and the obligations of military service claim the lives of fathers, husbands, and children.
Investigating the personal impact of social upheaval with unparalleled sensitivity and depth, Sybelia Drive is a novel that will stay with you for a long, long time. It is an extraordinary debut.
There is a whole long backstory to how I ended up with both a digital and physical copy of Karin’s book – I owe thanks to Lori @TNBBC, Karin, her publishers and Blackwell’s – we got there eventually, and I would consider myself a fool for not reading this gorgeous book as soon as I got the PDF, except that the physical book is a thing of beauty, and I’m just getting so much more into the actual turning of physical pages these days. Anyway, now that I own a copy, with a lovely bookplate, I am going to treasure it forever – and here’s why.
It has been a long time since I read anything set in the era of the Vietnam war, and I certainly can’t remember reading anything that uses the backdrop of the war in such a clever, complex way. On one level, we have a coming-of-age story, as we follow Lulu, Rainey and Saul through their childhood by the lake, into adolescence and early adulthood. All three grow up in the shadow of fathers and older friends lost to the war, some to return, some not, and the absences at the heart of their young lives are poignantly depicted. Rainey has the added complication of being more or less abandoned by her mother, living with the Blackwoods in a kind of limbo between sibling and stranger. A novel that focused solely on these three incredibly complex, real, fascinating characters would have been a triumph of a debut in itself.
But Davidson is even bolder with her structure and the breadth and depth of her exploration: a multitude of characters are given a voice, in a dazzlingly skilful balancing act. I’m still puzzling out how she manages to flick so smoothly between first person viewpoints, something I have rarely seen done so effectively, and certainly not in a debut novel. We move between the inhabitants of Sybelia Drive (and also characters from across the world) getting glimpses of insight into their secrets and desires, and by the end, as the community comes together again, we feel we are a part of it. It is powerful to feel so bonded to a fictional place and its people; I was genuinely sad to leave them behind at the end of the book.
This review is hard for me to write, because I loved this book so fiercely – similar to how I felt recently about Cory Anderson’s What Beauty There Is – and it is difficult to express just how much the prose moved me. Davidson writes with a magic touch, weaving truth and beauty out of words, creating sentences that honestly made my heart ache. There is a sense of the organic here, of personal growth and development and the ebbing and flowing of affection and resentment between characters that just feels stunningly real. Every character had my sympathy at one point or another, though I think spiky, funny, sometimes cruel Lulu was probably my favourite. These are characters so vivid, written so beautifully, that I miss them and carry them with me still.
Sybelia Drive is the sort of book that leaves me feeling that everyone should know about – it deserves to be widely read and loved. It’s a lyrical, intelligent, probing book that also hums with the comfort of friendship and connection, and moves along at a rhythmically soothing pace. It is subtle but also surprising, written with a lightness of touch and a depth of feeling that left me feeling changed. I am so excited to have discovered Karin Cecile Davidson’s work, and I urge you all to seek it out as well.
More info can be found on the author’s website.