‘Unkept’ by Ericka Clay

I am still trying to make a decision regarding my identity crisis (you can read my last post here), but in the meantime I offer up another book review.

Unkept is a brand new novel by author Ericka Clay. Upon the release of her book, Clay put out a call for reviewers so I volunteered for the job and, to my delight, she accepted.

Unkept - Ericka Clay

Unkept is written in the genre of women’s fiction and centres around two main characters, Vienna Oaks and Heather Hammel. Vienna is the manager of her father’s funeral home and Heather’s mother has just died, which requires her to avail of the Oaks Family Funeral Home’s services. What makes this situation so thorny is the fact that Heather bullied Vienna when they were children and, on top of this, each woman possesses an enduring desire for Wyland, Vienna’s best friend at school and Heather’s now husband. Both Vienna and Heather come from dysfunctional family backgrounds which inevitably impacts on how they cope with the circumstances in which they now find themselves.

Nearly every principal character is incredibly flawed, in some cases to the point of being deeply unlikeable. I think this is a gutsy move on the part of the author as there can be much risk in creating a story where the reader does not necessarily have someone for whom they can declare their staunch support. I have to admire Clay for not succumbing to any sugar-coating over her characters, most of whom are barely holding themselves together at the seams.

The novel has a somewhat unclear start as the opening chapters are overloaded with a barrage of character names and too many unanswered questions, making it difficult to settle in until the third or fourth chapter. In addition to this, the narrative constantly goes back and forth in time with flashbacks breaking into the present-day storyline on a regular basis – while this does provide the back story necessary to fill in all those blanks left early on, it also tends to disturb the flow of the immediate plot. What’s good is that the narrative approach involves alternating chapters between the perspectives of the two chief protagonists, giving us an insight into both sides of their tumultuous relationship.

Clay’s writing has a very lyrical tone to it and the book is suffused with striking imagery throughout. While some of it works really well, such as “…not Heather, who knew the beats of the usual orchestrated chaos in her home but was frantically thumbing the sheet music to find her place” (Chapter 4), and “‘Moment of truth,’ her husband said, killing the car, birthing the silence” (Chapter 2), others do not quite have the desired effect: “Time had dashed through the surface of the sky” (Chapter 7). Make of that what you will. But then, it turns out that Clay also writes poetry which may explain the presence of some of her more enigmatic phrases. Even though the writing was not always appealing to me, I do acknowledge that Clay has a very distinctive voice which, in a world saturated with writers clamouring to be heard, will help her to stand out among the others. When you read her, you will absolutely know it is her by the style.

Unkept - Ericka Clay

Lastly, motherhood is an overriding theme in this novel – impending motherhood, failed motherhood and all the layers in between. This is where Clay displays her very best, in her ability to deal with such a weighty topic in an adept way. The story reveals that mothers do not know all the answers, that sometimes they are no good at being mothers at all, and that not every pregnant woman looks forward to the birth of her child with unadulterated joy. It is this brutally honest representation of motherhood that makes Unkept a book worth reading.

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