Book Review: The Violet Hour by Katherine Hill
The Violet Hour by Katherine Hill (Scribner; 368 pages; $26).
Katherine Hill begins her intimate and utterly beguiling first novel, The Violet Hour, on a boat. This leisure cruise ultimately charts the course of Hill’s novel. What we assume will be a fun excursion on the San Francisco Bay for Abe and Cassandra Green and their daughter, Elizabeth, leads to the end of a marriage. Hill then progresses the narrative forward from 1997 to 2005, an eight-year progression into the future that seems strange at first but then becomes clear. It is just the distance Hill’s distinctive and multi-faceted narrators need to illuminate both the union and the fracturing of a family.
Cassandra has not laid eyes on Abe in almost eight years when she, Elizabeth, and her siblings gather for the birthday of Cassandra’s father. When a tragic accident befalls Cassandra’s father and takes his life, his loved ones are left reeling.
Hill has a rationale for killing a character on his birthday when he is surrounded by his family. Cassandra’s father had run a funeral parlor in the basement of their home. For this family perhaps more so than for others, death is truly a part of life. Especially in late August of 2005.
Hill’s superbly crafted characters are especially attuned to the suffering that a storm called Katrina has inflicted upon the Gulf Coast. Hurricane Katrina left an indelible mark on both the region it hit and on our nation as a whole. As a person who went through Katrina’s destruction and aftermath, I do not see how a writer could set any kind of tale in late August and early September 2005 and not feature Katrina. It would be irresponsible otherwise. Hill draws a compelling and convincing parallel between Hurricane Katrina and the death of Cassandra’s father, nicely juxtaposing the two calamities. As a family is changed forever, a country is irrevocably altered. Thus, Hill effectually intertwines a family and a country both in the midst of loss.
Katrina’s flood waters provide Hill with the opportunity to bring her story full circle. Abe had relished the time he spent on the San Francisco Bay in his boat. Sure, the water might have been choppy at times, but the experience renewed him. Water nourishes us; we need it to survive. The essential liquid cleanses, soothes, and provides respite, but it also has a dark side. In Katrina, the water thunders, roils, gathers momentum and wreaks havoc on a city. Tiny vessels ferry residents to safety. As in the beginning of the story, Hill returns to boats. This time the boats are rescuing hurricane survivors and charting the course of others’ lives.
Deftly plotted, richly characterized, and brilliantly placed, The Violet Hour is a perfect novel for fans of Ghana Must Go. Hill knocked me over with her very personal portrayal of a family’s past and present. She knows how to keep readers turning pages. I am particularly pleased she highlights Katrina so prominently in the book. Without the historic and devastating storm, this story would definitely lose some of its impact