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by C. E. Morgan
Reviewed by Akeela Gaibie Dawood

This debut novel introduces a young author with an extraordinary command of the pen. C. E. Morgan's finely crafted prose draws one into present-day Kentucky with its sweltering, breezeless days, where twenty-year-old Aloma has come to live with her lover, Orren.

Aloma has only ever had herself. Orphaned young, she was packed off to a mission school where she discovered a love of playing the piano. It's the one thing in life that gives her inordinate joy. When she meets Orren, their coming together is "more collision than cohabitation", but they stay together. He has talked of marriage on occasion, and now asks her to join him on his farm. And she relents. She packs her stuff and, "...drove the long slope, her truck jolting and bucking as she approached. The bottomland yawned into view and she saw the fields where the young tobacco faltered on the drybeat earth..." When she stopped, "displaced dust still hung close behind the fender of her truck, loath to lie down in boredom again." On arrival, she finds Orren altered—he has lost the twinkle in his eye and "sudden age had impressed itself on his frame." Orren has just lost his family in an accident, and is weighed down with concern for his withered fields. He is a closed door. "His tongue could not bear the weight of words anymore." She, on the other hand, remembers how he courted her and she longs for more of him.

Bored with the long, dull, humid days on the farm, Aloma yearns to play the piano once more. In a rare, conciliatory mood, Orren suggests that she offer her piano-playing services down at the church. And so she meets the tall, dark and kind preacher, Bell Johnson, and finally gets to play her precious piano again: " she pushed beyond the opening bars, her fingers found their old habit of being, and the memory of her muscles drew her mind into the song. Her breathing slowed and she found once again, as she always did, that she had a fearsome control of herself at the keyboard—if nowhere else in the world." While Orren is obsessed with saving his farm, Aloma comes to spend more and more time at the church, playing. And Bell is always available, both for company and to appreciate Aloma's musical dexterity. It is only a matter of time before she is inexorably drawn to his thoughtful, benevolent presence....

All the Living doesn't have much of a plot, but Morgan does a superb job of describing the dry landscape and the despairing characters, each caught up in their own personal struggles. The result is an astonishing piece of work, an accomplished novel that is meant to be savoured, and is unequivocally recommended.