“Cemetery Road” by Greg Iles. New York: William Morrow, 2019. 587 pages, $28.99 (hardcover).
Marshall McEwan left home and hoped to never go back. The trauma that caused his departure turned him into one of the most successful journalists in Washington. However, just as his fame is to rise, he learns his father is terminally ill and decides to go back home.
In Bienville, Miss., he finds that time has marched on and things changed without him. His family’s 150-year-old newspaper is failing. The Poker Club has helped the town dig its way out of poverty and gain a billion-dollar Chinese paper mill, but just as it is about to be set in stone, two murders threaten everything.
Working with his former lover Jet, Marshall looks for the truth. However, as he begins to dig deeper, he learns these secrets can destroy far more. The Poker Club’s secret leads all the way back to Washington. By the time Marshall understands, he would do almost anything to not face what is coming.
I have loved Greg Iles’ books. He is a fantastic author with books steeped in history. While this book certainly lived up to that, I did like it a little less than his previous works. I do not mind reading things I disagree with, just as I may disagree with some opinions in real life. However, this one was hard to read because of the focus on adultery. It is not something I ever agree with and based on my own parents’ issues when I was a child, it was hard to endure this much plot surrounding it and a main character who occasionally defended it.
On this vein, I was never a fan of the main couple in this story. No matter how I tried. Characters I did love could have been a much better focus – but I understand that this relationship played into the plot a little too much for my liking. There are only so many conversations a person can read about the fear of being discovered or how much someone’s significant other will kill them before you just want them to get caught already and bloody be done with it.
All of Iles’ books have been long, but before this I never minded. This time, it felt like the impending doom and tension just kept getting hung up in mindless, repetitive conversation. The action was excellent, the twists and plot points were well worth the read, and the ending was exactly the mix of good and bad I would expect. However, getting there was another story and there were times I wanted to throw up my hands and call it quits. The overall story kept it moving, and I was really invested in most of the main characters. I wanted to get to the end – I just wish it had happened a bit sooner.
The family of the main character, Marshall, is incredibly interesting. I enjoyed his dynamic with his father, learning of his past and watching him work through it. I even enjoyed the flashbacks and slowly finding out about the tragedy that changed his life so profoundly. Or should I say tragedies. The relationship between Marshall and father help make the book what it is. Nadine was quite possibly my favorite character in the entire novel, and I hope we see more of her in future writings. It was very difficult to read about the death of a young child – which we do see in the past – but this book deals with grief in many different ways and in the many different forms it can take. Fiction has a way of playing out real life and helping others work through things in their own way, and I appreciate the ability Iles has to show how humans act, and change their behavior in the most realistic of ways.
The overall community feel was something I look forward to in Iles’ writings, and this was true here more than ever. We were able to see the good and bad of a small-town gossip chain, or rumor mill, as well as the tide turning quickly for or against someone. Small-town politics are always an interesting story. I do wish we had been able to see a few more of the community characters we meet along the way in this story.
Interestingly enough, when browsing reviews on this book, the main complaint was that Iles used the book to push his own political views and that authors (along with anyone else like a celebrity or host) should never have political beliefs … which I have always thought was ridiculous to the max. If you want some amusement, read the 1-star reviews. While it is true that a good deal of his audience may be in the South and may have voted for President Donald Trump, I barely noticed the negative remarks about our current president. However, it fit with the story of a liberal journalist winning awards for blowing the tops off stories, and who had a father fighting for the rights of citizens in a black town. It was not whatsoever pushed on people, nor were there a ton, and it fit with the story. So as a warning – the main character in this book does not like Trump. If that bothers you, do not read it.
Perhaps the best thing about this book is how it explores choices and their consequences. Beyond that, it looks at the fact that there is not always a right or wrong answer, or perhaps the good or evil choice. Sometimes we compromise to do the most good; sometimes we lose a piece of ourselves. This gray moral ground is enchanting, because our ethics are always tested in ways we cannot predict, and the choices we have do not always allow us to do what we proudly proclaim we would. You never know what you would do in someone else’s shoes, and you may never want to be responsible for someone else’s life (or thousands of lives). Iles’ willingness to show this in his fiction is a remarkable thing.
Iles is currently a member of the band The Rock Bottom Remainders. His first novel, “Spandau Phoenix,” came out in 1993 and he has gone on to write 10 best-selling novels. He lives in Natchez, Miss. – where you can rent his house (google it!).
– Reviewed by Fallon Willoughby, Academic Advising and Retention, Western Kentucky University.