When a critical reader concerns himself with an author’s “voice,” it’s not pitch and timbre that he means to take up, but another, more subtle quality of self-expression—call it the phenomenon of hearing an audible silence. At its most fundamental, it’s a variant of style, the part of style that the reader hears in his head as he reads, that carries a book’s heart and soul. It’s what sets apart one author’s work from another’s in a reader’s imagination, and defines it in contrast to the general work of the genre. The attentive reader will discern that voice as it emerges in a book’s first pages, hear it and weigh it as it asserts itself, and judge in the long run its ability to carry and maintain its own distinctiveness. Especially for authors who attempt to maintain long careers, unusual demands will be placed on their voice and its tunings. Ultimately, everything about their art will depend on whether the author is able to maintain a voice equal to the demands placed upon it by those seeking its satisfactions.
Elizabeth Spencer, born in Mississippi and for several decades a resident of North Carolina, possesses an authorial voice that has ranged over more time and place and subject matter than most writers. She published her first novel in 1948, before many of her current readers were born, and her most recent work, a collection of stories titled Starting Over, was published in 2014. But a dozen years had elapsed since her previous book, and readers might well have thought Spencer believed her voice was exhausted back at the turn of the century. Starting Over, as the title implies, is the evidence she offers that she was only at a resting place back then, and now, like a runner who reaches deep inside, she shows us it’s possible to find the breath for one last kick toward the finish line. That breath, of course, is a constituent element of the writer’s voice, so the reader of this collection may take it up listening for the fine grain of a voice they’ve come to know over the years, or they may hear the wheeze of a new voice that’s not quite certain of itself or of its times.
Starting Over begins on a confident note, in territory that Spencer has worked successfully before. The main characters of its first story, “Return Trip,” are a married couple named Patricia and Boyd, on vacation in the Smokey Mountains when a telephone message, tinged with apology and hesitation, arrives from Edward, a long-time friend who’s moved in shadowy orbits around the married couple for years. The message leaves Patricia and Boyd decidedly uneasy. Edward is inviting himself into their vacation since he’s going to be in the area—and is already on the way in from the airport, so they needn’t bother to meet him. This false courtesy is recognized for the ploy that it is, but Patricia and Boyd pretend to each other that they’re pleased at the prospect of the arrival of a guest. Little by little, Spencer introduces dread into the situation, managing the conversation between the couple in such a way that the readers knows Edward’s arrival will reopen old suspicions in their marriage that they haven’t had the courage to resolve before.
Spencer constructs her narrative by means of indirection, through overheard comments around the edges of conversation, through passing events that happen at the periphery of the everyday. But Spencer puts a bone in the throats of her characters, such that telling the truth by any one of them would force an outcome that would choke them all. Edward’s arrival in Patricia and Boyd’s world does what it always does, turning it upside down, requiring an unaccustomed candor that eventually allows them to make avowals to each other that were formerly impossible, though the central ambiguities are left a matter of speculation. As the jigsaw pieces of a past event are shaken into place by Spencer, and arranged for possible catastrophe, she offers her characters an escape into redemption, her voice quietly in control of events and their meaning.
In the final story, “The Wedding Visitor,” a member of a well-to-do Southern family comes home for the nuptials of a cousin he’s flirted with since he was a teenager but whom he always keeps at a respectable arm’s length. Courting cousins doesn’t work, he tells himself. But he’s quickly drawn into the currents of a scandal lurking around the edges of the wedding—and around his cousin—a scandal that offers him, Rob Ellis, an opening into the unthinkable. It seems that Rob has never felt comfortable with his place in the family of his father’s brother, the richest of the larger clan, though that family had taken him in most summers as a youth, as well as at other times when his father was too distracted to take care of his paternal duties. An adult now and a graduate of the Ole Miss law school, Rob is the amanuensis for a state senator, both a political jack of all trades and the fixer of inconvenient dilemmas. He calms people’s nerves, he enters into their troubles and smoothes them, he banks his own passions for the sake of the greater good of his family. Spencer creates a situation in which Rob will need all these arts. She gives him an amiable surface and mutable ethics, the ability to know which to honor and which to manipulate. In the end, he exits the wedding a quiet savior, though not a spotless one, a man who knows how much breath and voice a decent human needs to withhold when scandal is in the air.
For half-a-century, Elizabeth Spencer has maintained her lapidary author’s voice, permitting few alterations into its grain, a few small repairs that allow a story to be compressed to its essence, and a few loud ones that admit contemporary discourse is often vulgar and obscene. But Spencer’s readers will find that she retains her Southern determination to find integrity in the flawed world, a world she’s described to us in her own good voice, written with the fidelity even a critical reader will be delighted with.