A novel for our times: ‘Now in November’ by Josephine Johnson


I first encountered ‘Now in November,’ appropriately enough, as one of Apollo’s ‘Best Books You’ve Never Read‘ and knew I simply had to take up the implied challenge  – not only am I simply incapable of resisting such a tag-line, but it also put Johnson’s Pulitzer prize winner in the same category as The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones‘ a Babel-inflected cowboy novel that utterly charmed me last year.

‘Now in November’ also makes for an interesting companion for Ali Smith’s ‘Autumn,’ which was my last seasonal read.  Set in rural America during the Depression, Johnson’s novel is engaging not only for its historical authenticity but also for how relevant it still seems today.  It would have been an interesting experiment to present the first paragraph of the Brexit and Depression-era novels and see if anyone could guess which was which (if Smith wins out on literary playfulness, Johnson may have the upper hand when it comes to frustrated powerlessness).

Now in November I can see our years as a whole.  This autumn is like both an end and a beginning to our lives, and those days which seemed confused with the blur of all things too near and too familiar are clear and strange now.  It has been a long year, longer and more full of meaning than all those ten years that went before it.  There were nights when I felt we were moving toward some awful and hopeless hour, but when that hour came it was broken up and confused because we were too near, and I did not even quite realise that it had come.

The ‘I’ in the passage is Marget, unlovely middle daughter of a hard-working family who are in their eleventh year of trying to survive on a heavily mortgaged farm in the dust-bowl.  In the course of the novel, she takes us through this last tragic year, but also reflects on the preceding decade, when, despite the ever-present insecurity, there was still joy, hope and beauty in her family’s fierce love for their land.

Don’t be put off by the bleakness (though it is very very bleak).  The sensitivity and sincerity of Marget’s beloved mother and younger sister illuminate the harshness of much of the story and the romance when a new worker joins the family is as understated and yearning as I could have wished for.  Meanwhile cutting through the calm routines of life, Marget’s troubled older sister brings a contemporary edge, making it hard to remember that this book was written in the 1930s.  Defying categorisation,  the independent Kerrin, ‘alien and odd,’ is a truly intriguing character, presented with just enough detail to be tantalisingly unknowable.

I’ve put off reading this book for too long (it kept coming to the top of the reading pile during the wrong month), but I urge you not to follow my example.  ‘Now in November’ is an enduring tale of love and endurance and a genuine classic of American literature whose presentation of the harsh realities of life resonates across time.

I received my copy of ‘Now in November’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

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