Sarah Jane has had a difficult and complex life to date. Born in the American South to poor parents whose relationship was dysfunctional, she had a troubled childhood. Her adolescence was tumultuous and ended with a court-ordered stint in the military. She was ‘in country‘ and came back with many invisible, indelible scars. Once again on American soil, she works as a cook in everything from greasy spoons to high end restaurants. She goes from man to man, from love to love, and from loss to loss…
Almost by accident, she finds herself working at the sheriff’s office of a small, rural town. This is ironic in that her father once said to her: “We’re from good hillbilly stock, Pretty. We don’t call police.”
Calvin Phillips, the sheriff of a small town called Farr, takes her under his wing and teaches her on the job, much like an apprentice. With no formal police training, (often not required in some states), Cal teaches her everything he knows. When Cal goes missing, Sarah is appointed acting sheriff and it is her job to discover what happened to Cal and why he left…
Confession time… this is my first James Sallis novel. Perhaps I was living under a rock?
Sarah Jane Pullman is an unforgettable character. Resilient to all that life throws at her, she perseveres in her own unique way and wears her many scars with composure. She has secrets, but she shares them with no one.
To say that this novel is well written is an understatement. The prose is spare, yet it speaks volumes. I found myself highlighting many quotes to save for rereading later. For me, that is always the sign of a good book.
I did find it hard to get into at first. Sarah Jane’s memories and anecdotes of her life before we meet her were confusing at first. Then, when I got a few chapters in, I didn’t want to put the book down.
To this reader the overall theme was empathy with philosophical observations on the human condition thrown in for good measure. Yes, it was noir. Yes it could be classified as a mystery. Yet it was so much more. A brilliant character study, I would call it a literary mystery. The ending wasn’t neatly tied up – Sarah Jane’s secrets remain with her. It makes you think and draw your own conclusions.
Would I read another James Sallis novel? Most definitely!
Some favourite quotes from “Sarah Jane”
“We hunker down in our daily lives, in the shelter of routines and assumptions. We miss so much.”
“You never know what’s floating down toward you as you plod your way upstream.”
“Often when things happen you realize you’ve felt them coming for a long time.”
“The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the examined life, any examined life at all, is for damn sure going to surprise, confound and disturb you.”
“Nothing is ever final. Things get smaller in the rear view mirror but they don’t go away.”
“Empathy, the ability to put ourselves into someone else’s life however different that life may seem, is what will save us, if anything can.”
“What you see and feel in others, ultimately, is what you’re able to reach down and find in yourself.”
“What people see has as much to do with themselves as with what they’re looking at.”
Born in Helena, Arkansas, James Sallis has published seventeen novels, multiple collections of short stories, essays, and poems, books of musicology, a biography of Chester Himes, and a translation of Raymond Queneau’s novel Saint Glinglin. He has written about books for the LA Times, New York Times, and Washington Post, and for some years served as a books columnist for the Boston Globe. He has received a lifetime achievement award from Bouchercon, the Hammett Award for literary excellence in crime writing, and the Grand Prix de Littérature policière. The Cannes award-winning film Drive derived from his novel of that title. His new novel, Sarah Jane, will be available in 2019. Jim plays numerous instruments with his string band Three-Legged Dog and with other musicians in the Phoenix area. He stays busy.