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Review: Kent Wascom's 'Secessia' a darkly beautiful novel of Civil War New Orleans

Secessia opens with a stunning image: A beautiful 14-year-old girl in a midnight blue gown, her face streaming with blood not her own, flees through the costumed crowd at a grand ball in New Orleans in 1844. Elise Durel searches fruitlessly for her mother or her chaperone, "feels the dancers shiver at her passage." Her only savior is a sickly looking boy named Emile Sabatier. When the crowd turns on her, he helps her escape, then loses track of her — for more than a decade.

After that prologue, Kent Wascom's novel resumes their story in 1862, in the midst of the Civil War. Elise is a wife and mother, Emile a doctor, businessman and political fixer. The first chapter opens with Elise's adolescent son, Joseph, crouching on the New Orleans levee, "come to watch the end of the world": the arrival of Major Gen. Benjamin Butler, the Union commander who will impose martial law on the conquered city and enforce it so harshly he will earn the nickname "the Beast." Joseph's obsession with the Yankee occupation is matched only by his feelings for Marina, a young shipwreck survivor who, her parents lost to the sea, is being cared for by his mother's friend and neighbor.

What follows is a mesmerizing, often brutal, beautifully written tale told in turn from the points of view of Elise, Emile, Joseph, Marina and Butler, with New Orleans — corrupt, lovely, racist, refined, enigmatic New Orleans — as backdrop and chorus.

Wascom's 2013 debut novel, The Blood of Heaven (published when the New Orleans native and graduate of Florida State University's creative writing program was all of 26), was named a best book of the year by NPR and the Washington Post. It's a sprawling historical epic that often shades into fever dream, recounted in rich language and imagery that evoke the novels of William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy, and set mainly in the territory called West Florida, a lawless frontier in the early 19th century.

Heaven's main character is an orphaned teenager named Angel Woolsack, a preacher's son whose bloody coming of age forms a kind of twisted twin to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that's much darker than that already dark book.

Secessia is the sequel to The Blood of Heaven, and it shows no sign of sophomore slump. In it, Angel is an old man. He has only one eye and one hand left, a " near-corpse animated only by madness." But he is still a terrifying figure, especially to his son, Joseph. The boy was born to Angel and Elise, who no longer seems to be the terrifying figure she was as Secessia opened. The events of that evening ruined her, and she was later hired by Angel as a "companion woman... A place reserved for women who still bore darkness, those sufferers of varying unspoken degrees of Negro blood who fashion for themselves the lives of fairy-tale princesses afflicted with a curse of color, a station far below one such as Elise, whose descent to all appearances seems unshakably white."

Those infinitesimal, infinitely important gradations of the color line are just one element in the complex and bitter relationships among these characters. The book's title refers, of course, to the Confederacy's enormous act of treason in removing itself from the United States. But what — and who — belongs to whom is a theme that runs throughout Secessia, whether it's white ownership of blacks, male possession of women, parents' control of children or a conquering army's power over a defeated city.

Elise has come to hate her much older husband, and she wants nothing more than to raise her son to be as little like his father as possible. Angel has always lived by the gun and will die by it, but the exact circumstances of his death become one of the questions driving the novel's suspense.

Emile, who remains haunted by his youthful encounter with Elise, has grown into a sinister figure himself — outwardly suave and persuasive, he is fascinated with death and disease. He became a doctor not because he cares about saving lives but because he is so intrigued by the body's interior mysteries and the processes of illness. He even sees the Union occupation of the city as a form of disease that he thinks of as "cyanosis," a macabre play on the medical term for bluish discoloration of the skin (as in death by suffocation) and the color of the Yankees' uniforms.

As Emile and Elise play out a ruthless dance of courtship and control, Wascom echoes it more gently in the budding infatuation between Joseph and Marina. Even Butler's relationship with the people of New Orleans reflects that struggle between the sexes: Butler was a real person, and Wascom skillfully weaves into his story the general's real, infamous order that any woman who insulted or showed contempt for a soldier should be treated like a "woman of the town plying her avocation" — that is, as if she were a prostitute. That order outraged the city, and in this novel will mean that a fit of laughter results in a prison sentence.

Driven by powerful prose, a tautly structured plot and darkly enthralling characters, Secessia is a memorable story about how, in a beat of the heart, the possessor can become the possessed, or possession can come to nothing at all.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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