Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman
by Elizabeth Harris
Arlington, VA: Gival Press, 2015
140 pp. $20.00 paper
Native Texan Elizabeth Harris sets her latest novel, Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman, in the fictional Central Texas town of Iron Rock, a community originally settled by German immigrants whose descendants still inhabit the town. Set in the mid-twentieth century, the novel focuses on a young married couple’s relationship struggles, life changing events, and the heart-breaking potential humans have to inflict pain on one another.
Evelyn Kunkel and Les Gant, descendants of original German settler families, marry each other for convenience and practicality. Their lack of communication creates insurmountable problems. From the start of their marriage it is evident that Evelyn’s future with Les will be wrought with pain. At a fishing hole shared by several of the families, Evelyn is confronted by one of their neighbors, Charlie McCoy, who attempts to seduce her. When she tries to tell her husband, Les refuses to believe anything of the sort could be happening. He eventually sees Charlie running away from the fish shack and finds Evelyn alone, holding her underwear. Years of silence and lack of honest communication have tainted Evelyn and Les’s marriage, and Evelyn is afraid to confess her affair. Brimming with rage, Les recruits his brother and goes on a manhunt for Charlie; they attempt to castrate him, but they only succeed in severely injuring him. While Les and his brother end up serving time in prison, Evelyn is left trying to piece her life back together. For the rest of the novel, the narrative loses focus on Les and centers on Evelyn and her process of recovery.
The mastery of this story is seen in its intricacies. Harris presents rural culture as both charming and barbaric, with the lives of its inhabitants bound together like intricately woven threads. The tragedy of Evelyn’s story, and perhaps many women’s stories in this time period, lies in her lack of autonomy—she marries because it is expected of her, and follows through with an affair because she feels like sex is something she is forced to regulate. She seemingly enjoys neither, and ends up destitute in the process. The tone of the novel can be harsh at times, but Harris excels in layering her story with juxtaposing emotions. Even though Evelyn’s life seems helpless by the end, there is a clear dichotomy at work: it is only through her pain that Evelyn is able to find hope, and in her involuntary freedom, she is able to discover her identity solely in and through herself. A compelling read, it is no wonder why this gem of a book won the 2014 Gival Press Novel Award.
Mary Jarvis is Assistant Director of Information and Library Resources at the Cornette Library at West Texas A&M University in Canyon, Texas.