Reviewed by Terrell Isselhard.
“Seven local boys, gone all at once in one horrific night. Boys whose parents thought they were safe, having signed on with the National Guard to protect the homeland. Not to be shipped out to some faraway place we never heard of.”
Paulette Livers debut novel, Cementville, opens with the return of seven young men killed in Vietnam. The town gathers to celebrate the return of one hero and mourn the arrival of the seven dead. Livers’ novel offers a unique and sensitive look at the toll war takes on the people at home. America’s wars are often fought abroad and mourned at home, and as our nation continues to fight overseas, Livers’ novel offers important and moving insights into how war can echo in the homes of people who are not necessarily doing the fighting.
Cementville defies easy categorization. On the one hand, Livers has written a novel that has its roots in the tradition of the Vietnam War literature of Tim O’Brien, but there is also something uniquely southern and regional about her literature with echoes of Faulkner, Willa Cather, and Jayne Anne Phillips. However, Cementville manages to be a part of these traditions while still standing out as a unique and contemporary novel. We find ourselves moving through an entire community in the space of only a few hundred pages. Livers seems capable of inhabiting any mind. Whether she is writing from the perspective of an elderly African American man living in the Cementville ghetto, or giving us a look at the isolated perch of an agoraphobic woman who still remains intimately involved in the lives in the town, Livers manages to dive deep into every story in Cementville.
So much is lost in war, but we rarely allow ourselves to sit with that discomfort. Livers seems capable not only of guiding her reader though painful realizations, but also offering much needed doses of hope, humor, and insight along the way. In learning the story of each of these characters and seeing how all these experiences overlap, we find ourselves a part of Cementville in a way that most novels do not allow. Livers does not simply guide us through the town. Instead, she allows her reader to sink into the murky and, at times, frightening world of this small Kentucky community.
Cementville will appeal to readers of literary fiction. It is a war novel, a Vietnam novel, a southern novel, but it is also a profoundly contemporary novel because it looks closely at the tension between community and individuality, which is a great American struggle that only seems to get harder with time. By taking her reader back to the Vietnam era, Livers manages to push us past the politics of the present and remind us that when a nation is at war, patience, understanding, and love are the most useful tools we have.