A Shout in the Ruins

Kevin Powers

A Shout in the Ruins
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A Shout in the Ruins

Kevin Powers

Following his hugely celebrated debut novel, The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers returns to the battlefield and its aftermath, this time in his native Virginia, just before and during the Civil War and ninety years later.

The novel pinpoints with unerring emotional depth the nature of random violence, the necessity of love and compassion, and the fragility and preciousness of life. It will endure as a stunning novel about what we leave behind, what a life is worth, what is said and unsaid, and the fact that ultimately what will survive of sus is love.


George Seldom was born in Virginia in the midst of the American civil war. A foundling, saved from certain death by an outlaw gang, who knows nothing of his parents. In his nineties, on the cusp of the civil rights movement, he determines to discover what he can of them and of his place in the world.

Rawls is a teenage slave at the advent of the civil war, whose ownership has passed between slave owners of varying degrees of cruelty, as has that of Nurse, the girl he falls in love with. Separated by commensurate circumstances, Rawls risks life and liberty (inasmuch as it is afforded him) to find his beloved Nurse.

What unfolds is a brocade of improbable love and devotion delicately woven on a fabric sheared bloody and ragged by the twin blades of brutal racism and apocalyptic war. In the process, Kevin Powers highlights and parallels the moral relativism of both the ‘rules of engagement’ and the norms and accepted practices of Southern slavery.

Himself a veteran of the Iraq war, Powers does not shy from the horrors exposed in military engagement.

Sound too heavy? Keep in mind, at its core this is a love story, albeit a bloodshot and tragically hopeless one, in which the protagonists’ modest dreams are no longer emboldened by the prospect of a Yankee victory. Beyond the narrative, Powers’ agile and vivid prose and his employment of a charming regional and archaic vernacular should also delight.

If, as I do, you hold your breath between publication of Cormac McCarthy novels for want of a tale of equal beauty and terror, relax and inhale. A Shout in the Ruins is certain to wrench the reader’s gut and heart, with ferocity and tenderness measured accordingly.

Roland Bisshop works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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