Badlands, by Cynthia Reeves (Warning: Spoilers and a Rant)

I just finished a book that, quite literally, turned me into a sobbing mess for about five long minutes after I had finished it. The tears are still drying on my face and my skin still feels stretched and puffy. I am unsure whether my thoughts can be arranged into anything coherent right now, but here goes the attempt.

The book is called Badlands, and it is authored by Cynthia Reeves. If you don’t like spoilers, go read the book. Right now. I will wait.

Ms. Reeves is this year’s author for what my graduate program calls “Sprint Week,” a week in which a guest professor comes in to instruct the fiction students and conduct daily workshops. In other words, The Week of All Things Writing During Which You Will Probably Cry. This week will take place April 1-5, which is a week away now, so for this Tuesday’s class, we will be discussing her novel in preparation for her visit.

So today, I read it. All of it.

From the beginning I knew it was going to mess with my emotions. It chronicles the final hours of a woman battling cancer and her loving husband’s attempts to make her comfortable and reconcile her death with himself before it’s even happened yet. That’s pretty much what’s on the back cover. So of course I knew it was coming. Story about cancer, last hours . . . okay, she’s going to die at the end. Duh. That knowledge didn’t help me at all.

And it was because of Reeves’ writing that I turned into a baby at the end. She told the story so well, encapsulating so much emotion and so much detail into 200 pages, that even though I couldn’t forget what I knew was going to happen, I couldn’t have possibly been ready for it. She utilizes a time-ignorant style, such that in the middle of the story present the woman, Caro, could be catapulted into a memory or into a dream (it helped that Caro was on quite a bit of morphine at this point). This also happens to Caro’s husband Daniel as he struggles to sleep and then to not sleep in turn, waiting for the inevitable but not wanting to admit that he’s waiting. Using this technique, Reeves takes us through the relationship of Caro and her husband Daniel from the beginning to the end. As such, we learn about the characters and the events that have shaped their lives and personalities.

Through it all runs a current of the past—more specifically, of a Sioux family massacred at the Battle of Wounded Knee. Caro had found the bones of a mother, son, and daughter as an archeology student in the 70’s, and these bones come to life in her fever-dreams as Caro and her own children, now grown. There is a theme of family, of the past, of civilization even. The image of the baby who had continued to nurse on its dead mother recurs frequently. The pages of this book were saturated in sorrow. The tone was so heavy that I texted DR only 16 pages in about how I didn’t know if I could handle 200 pages of it.

Even at page 196, I was telling myself that I could do it. I could get to the end and not cry and just go to bed. And then on 207 of 208, I completely lost it. I still haven’t read the last page. I kind of just threw it from me and held my blanket and sobbed.

But that’s a good thing. Books are supposed to make you feel things. If they didn’t, why would anyone read them?

Well done, Cynthia Reeves. This is the best book I’ve read in a long, long time.

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