Get your hands on the hardcover edition of Lisa Howorth’s debut novel Flying Shoes.
Do not settle for an e-book, and if you check it out from a library, make sure the jacket is clearly in view and not disrupted by any kind of sticker.
Flying Shoes’ cover is a calm but stunningly artistic canvas. A soft blue sky fades into clouds, then a darker atmosphere hangs ominously above an archetypal small-town American street: cosy shops and houses with a raised USA flag on a pole. Flying across the front is a lone bird soaring ominously (or bravely perhaps) across the tableau.
Howorth is a stalwart of the Southern literary scene. Along with her husband Richard, she owns Square Books, a Mecca of the book-loving South in Oxford, Mississippi, that was named Publishers Weekly’s ‘Bookstore of the Year’ in 2013. A lifetime of selling – and loving – books has more than equipped Howorth to pen a solid character-driven and vivid work of Southern fiction.
Flying Shoes is Lisa Howorth’s debut novel, and it is a personal one. The novel is loosely based – I might say sparked and fuelled by – the murder of Howorth’s stepbrother in 1966, a case that remains unsolved to this day. The book is obviously impacted by Howorth’s attempt to catalogue, analyze, and feel her thoughts and emotions about that tragedy.
Like the way Howorth (narrating as her quirky protagonist Mary Byrd) describes her garden – ‘Slimy yellow rags of elephant ear lay around the porch’s edge, punctuated by shriveled caladiums’ – Flying Shoes tells a sharply detailed but meandering story.
Those expecting a mystery or thriller upon digesting the first chapter, in which the quirky Mary Byrd receives a call from a detective and a reporter telling her the decades-old case of her murdered stepbrother is being reopened, will get something different than they bargained for. It is a surprise, though, worth negotiating expectations over, because in Flying Shoes, Howorth trades what could be an easy or clichéd story – a classic murder mystery – for a heartfelt, heartbreaking, and ultimately well-written and effective tale about people, emotions, and how humans stricken by tragedy deal with time and their changing community.
Like any Southern novel worth its salt, Flying Shoes pays incredible attention to place. In this case, it is Oxford, Mississippi: home to the University of Mississippi — Ole Miss, William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak homestead, and decades of rich Southern society.
The description Howorth gives in the book of Mary Byrd’s perception of the town: ‘frat boys… thrashing in their hot tub’ and ‘rebel yells’, which Howorth hilariously calls ‘the broke-dick war cry of the proudly defeated.’
In an interview with Deep South Magazine, Lisa Howorth told writer Mary Sellers that one of the things she wanted to accomplish in the novel was to ‘give people a good glimpse of the unusual place that I think Oxford was.’ It is something she accomplishes with the experience and authority one can only muster and provide if they have lived in and known a place. She tackles the nuances of a Southern town and the strange characters one meets and relies on in life candidly, respectfully, and with a unique wit that gives the novel energy and the reader a constant craving to keep flipping pages.
Flying Shoes marks the arrival of a writer with a maturity and honesty not often seen from début novelists. It is as if this story and Howorth’s insights about the thousands of people she’s met in her life have been welling up inside of her since forever, and Flying Shoes is the achy, honest, and amusing offering of her version of a mystery every reader is already trying to figure out: that of being alive.