For everyone else.
I suppose this review should start with a disclaimer: I’m a Texan.
Not only am I a Texan, I’m a northeast Texan. I was born and raised roughly 50 miles from the city of Jefferson, where Cara Sue Achterberg’s Blind Turn nominally takes place. This setting is what drew me to her novel, despite tight family drama’s like this laying way outside my usual genre.
For fellow Texans out there looking for loving descriptions of the historic red brick post office, the Beauty and the Book hair salon, Big Cypress Bayou, or the annual Krewe of Hebe Mardi Gras parades, I’m afraid you will have to look elsewhere. Achterberg’s “Jefferson” is a kind of Anytown USA, rather than specifically Jefferson TX, zip code 75657.
For me, the weakness of Achterberg’s work can be found in this. In a novel where one of the biggest hurdles is that the entire town turns their backs on the protagonists, the absence of that uniquely Jefferson spice is felt keenly. A weekend jaunt through Jefferson (the B&B and antiquing scene are fabulous!) or even an afternoon stint on Wikipedia would have helped lend the novel local flavor and enriched the setting and the story immensely. When someone tries so hard to write a generic small town, they lose some of the DNA that makes every small town unique.
That said, there are some universal truths in Achterberg’s novel. Truths like small towns are places were “people mistake proximity for intimacy”, and frequent musings on the “invisible and impossible ways” people’s lives intertwine. There is beauty in these universalities, and in the ways that a mother’s love can transcend even doubt about her child’s innocence, in the redemption of a flawed father, the generosity of a near-stranger who becomes a part of a family, and the maturing of a teenager.
There is beauty in forgiveness, of the self and of others, and that too lies at the heart of this very human novel full of very human characters.
The great strength in Achterberg’s work lies in this humanity, in the ways she makes her characters stumble and fall as they struggle to grow into themselves. There are no perfect people in this novel, but they’re all trying, and damn do we love to watch them try.
When Jess runs away from home, all of sixteen and crumbling beneath the weight of the world, our hearts run with her. She has been through so much, physically and emotionally, how can we begrudge her this escape?
And when she comes home? When her parents find her and finally realize how much hurt their child has been hiding and they break with the weight of it? How can an empathetic reader not break as well?
Despite the story taking place across several months, Blind Turn is a rapid read. The inciting incident, a horrific car crash that upends everyone’s lives, happens about page three and the punches keep coming from there. Courtroom drama, complicated family dynamics, small-town histrionics, and workplace politics all come into play in Achterberg’s story, just as they do in real life.
And just like in real life, the ending is messy. A man is killed in the opening car crash and there is no un-ringing that bell. Jess, who was driving the car, her parents, who have alternately fallen together, apart, and together-ish again throughout the novel, the dead man’s widow, and the town as a whole all have to learn to live with that. Lines of love and loyalty are tangled, but everyone we care about as readers is working towards better. Working towards being whole.
There’s no riding off into the sunset here, but there is satisfaction in the conclusion both in redemption well earned, and in completing a story well written.
3.5/5 for fellow Texans who see what it could be with a little research.
4/5 for everyone else.