Directions to the Palace: Seek out Giacometti’s “The Palace at 4 a.m.” Go back precisely two hours. See towers and curtain walls of matchsticks, marble, marbles, light, cloud at stasis. Walk in. The beggar queen is dreaming on her throne of words… Welcome. You have arrived at the web home of Marly Youmans, maker of novels, poetry collections, and stories, as well as the occasional fantasy for younger readers.
"A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage" continues Youmans' winning ways. It received the Ferrol Sams Award for Southern fiction. It may, in fact, be Youmans' best to date: a picaresque yarn that invites comparisons to Robert Penn Warren.
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Although it's only intermittently comic, "White Camellia Orphanage" has parallels to Michael Malone's "Handling Sin." Both books are haunted with Christian imagery and metaphor, and both involve a quest for missing family. (Pip eventually encounters an older sister, who perhaps inevitably is named Lil.)
It is not a novel for speed-readers. Youmans revels in wordplay, metaphor and descriptions as luxuriant and dense as kudzu. She can also be slippery. In her version of Georgia, a lady's hatpin is a wildflower, not an object in a toilette.
Readers willing to exercise, though, will find plenty of reward. Like Warren's fiction, Youmans' book is as much poem as novel, turning ordinary story into something rich and strange.