Lena, a simple, quiet, trusting country girl already learned when she was in her teens how to open and close the window of her small and crowded bedroom in the quietest possible way. She makes use of this ability when – at the age of about twenty – she meets Lucas Burch. After a couple of secret midnight encounters, she gets pregnant, and Burch promptly disappears. However, Lena is not the one to panic, as she unwaveringly believes that the man will surely provide for her and her baby, and he will send a note when their future home is ready. When Burch fails to contact her, Lena gathers her meagre possessions, and starts her journey towards the place where she assumes her man might reside, because she wants to reunite with him before her child is born.
Lena arrives in Jefferson, Mississippi right at the beginning of the novel, and it soon turns out that Burch indeed took up residence here – but their reunion and the legitimation of their relationship is not that easy to arrange. And anyway, after a while it seems that Lena’s journey and her relations with her husband-to-be are not the most important themes of the novel: the focus is gradually shifted to the other residents of Jefferson, and their lives and deeds.
Jefferson is a typical dusty town with a suffocating atmosphere (both literally and metaphorically), a community where you find all the usual figures characteristic of a Southern town: there are bigoted people who cannot forgive their pastor for having a wife who led a shameful life; there’s a man who cannot find his place in the community, and both the white and the black shun him, because he looks like a white person but is still regarded as black since there’s a drop of black blood running in his veins; there’s a monomaniac parson whose single desire in life is to live in Jefferson as he feels that his family’s civil war heritage binds him to this town for eternity; and there’s a Yankee old maid who lives alone at the edge of the town and spends all her money and power on improving the life and circumstances of black people.
It’s hardly surprising that there’s a whole lot of tension among all these people with different personalities, past histories, family backgrounds, skin colors, world views and political views – and it’s not surprising either that there comes a moment in the inhumanly hot Jefferson summer when things reach their breaking point.
Faulkner is the master of building up tension, but he’s also more than this: he expertly shifts between different points of view, and between past and present – and this makes the novel a treat for me, being a sucker for all kinds of narrative tricks and peculiarities. Lena’s arrival in Jefferson and her departure from the town provides the frame for the story, however, in between these two events Faulkner freely jumps both in time and space, and he shows the events from constantly changing points of view. Sometimes he digs right into the mind of a character, and we get a first-hand account of that particular character’s thoughts and emotions; and sometimes we only learn some crucial details filtered through the mind of minor characters of whose trustworthiness we know nothing. For instance, we hear the end of Lena’s story from the mouth of a travelling salesman who only appears on the last couple of pages of the novel and who tells his wife about a strange couple he met while on the road to Tennessee.
Because of the lack of a single unified narrative voice and point of view, it’s often doubtful what you may accept as the „truth”, so it’s highly recommended to always note who’s telling something to whom. Of course, even with the closest reading you may miss out on the „truth”, or you may come to the conclusion that no single truth exists – but anyway, with all his narrative tricks, and with his careful measuring out of tension and information, Faulkner will surely draw you in to this bizarre, cruel, hopeless, bigoted world where people alternately follow the road to their past or try to run away from their past – but no matter what they want, they will surely get something they don’t expect.