Whiskey & Ribbons
By Leesa Cross-Smith
Hub City Press, March 2018
268 pages, $27.00
Review by Tyrese Coleman

Like a three-part orchestra, Evangeline, Eamon, and Dalton are different pieces seeking to find a chord in harmony in Leesa Cross-Smith’s debut novel from Hub City Press, Whiskey & Ribbons, and for a while, they strike a near-perfect tone. Evangeline and Eamon are married and expecting their first child, and Dalton is single, yet contemplating if he can have what his adopted brother and sister-in-law do. But like any good musical arrangement, it’s the bars of discord that create the tension necessary for a truly memorable experience. Beneath the melody is where Whiskey & Ribbons shines to reveal the truth about love, loss, family, and what it means to move on.

The book opens with this definition of the word fugue: “a contrapuntal composition in which a short melody phrase (the subject) is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others and developed by interweaving parts.” The main conflict is revealed on the first page of the first chapter: Eamon dies, and several days later, Noah, his son, is born. Grief from Eamon’s death is the subject explored through the point of view of its three main characters.

Despite being in the present, Evangeline constantly contemplates and relives past events. Evangeline and Dalton are locked inside during a snow storm, unable to do much else except talk, eat soup, smoke cigarettes, drink, and cry. Evangeline’s flashbacks take over, pulling her between finding the strength to confront her feelings for Dalton, and then losing herself in the past. It feels very real, the true passions of a widow, first-time mother, and someone who is in love, but afraid of admitting what that might mean. For example, a moment when Evangeline is getting dressed up is interrupted by thoughts of her wedding dress and a long flashback to New Year’s Eve. This emotional exhaustion, however, may be precisely what Cross-Smith wanted to achieve.

Dalton and Eamon’s sections, which have a more linear, forward-moving plot, feed into other interpretations of the word “fugue” – derivative of “flight,” “flee,” or “to chase” or “a state or period of loss of awareness of one’s identity.”

I found myself most compelled by Dalton’s story. Raised by a single mother, Eamon’s family adopted Dalton when he was a child and the two became instant brothers. Though Dalton is part of Evi and Eamon’s world, he is always the third wheel and has his own problems to handle. Confronted with the possibility of learning who his father is and falling for a new employee at his bike shop, Dalton is stuck between forging his own family, or picking up the one Eamon has left behind.

If Evi is the treble and Dalton is the bass, Eamon would be middle C, flowing between the two of them like a stabilizer. Eamon is the voice of the past. It is difficult to pull off a narrator who the reader knows is already dead at the beginning of the story. What are the stakes? Why keep reading when we know the outcome? It is easy to assume that a character’s story thrives on the tension between life and death, but Whiskey & Ribbons proves that greater risks come from the impact one has on the lives of others. Eamon leaves behind a son who his brother must raise in his place, a wife who feels his ghost so intimately she kisses an old water glass of his because his lips were once on that same spot, and a brother thrown into the middle of an instant family, in more ways than one. When you get to know him as a character, it is then easier to understand Evangeline’s sadness. His point of view is complicated yet comfortable, so much so that you almost forget Evi and Dalton riding out the snow storm in the present. When we are seeing the world through Eamon’s eyes, it is easy to forget that he actually dies.

Cross-Smith breathes life into this first novel of hers with lyricism and beauty, and you cannot help but fall for the three people whose lives come together like “three different pedals on a piano, three different beating hearts in this house. Soft, sostenuto, sustaining.”