In Sarah Elaine Smith’s debut novel, Marilou Is Everywhere, main character Cindy Stoat is almost 14, an observant and lonely teen in northern Appalachia whose mom has left home for a job without saying when she’s coming back. Parentless, Cindy and her two older brothers, Virgil and Clinton, cobble together a life, eating canned food and bathing once in a while in a nearby retaining pond. That might seem enough for a coming-of-age novel, but an outside event—the disappearance of Jude Vanderjohn, a more glamorous and privileged teen—sets the story in motion. Not long ago, Jude went out with Virgil, and now Virgil feels compelled to help out Jude’s unhinged mother, Bernadette, who can’t accept that her daughter is missing. Cindy tags along with Virgil, and before long she’s found a way out of her own sad house and into Bernadette’s. Because Bernadette’s memory is shot, she accepts Cindy’s growing presence in her house, at least some of the time.
It’s a compelling premise for a suspenseful novel, and short chapters keep the story moving, as Cindy makes a choice that harms others. But Smith isn’t solely interested in plot; she’s a poet as well as a fiction writer (she holds two MFAs, one fiction and another in poetry), and her interest in language shows. “Dark came on earlier,” Cindy remembers, midway through the novel. “The blue light had a glassy depth to it. Bernadette said it was the hours before the moon rose that made the color reverberate in its vaulted bowl over us. The first stars were scrawled in, and Virgil was late getting me.” Marilou Is Everywhere’s language mixes the inventive with the plain, which adds another dimension to the first-person narration, making Cindy’s lonely world more vivid.
Smith handles the darkness in the novel (rural poverty, sexual abuse, alcoholism, drug use, neglect) with a light touch, offering plenty of humor in Cindy’s narration. The story comes to a lovely conclusion, allowing Cindy and the novel’s other characters some redemption.
Smith is a writer to watch.