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  • Writer's pictureMandy McHugh

You Need To Read A Lush And Seething Hell

I finished this book a few days ago and I've been percolating over what I wanted to say in the review and how I wanted to say it-so hopefully this isn't just a ramble.

A Lush and Seething Hell completely knocked the wind out of me.

I'd seen many of my favorite reviewers on Twitter discussing this title, and I was thrilled to see it available on Libby right before Christmas. With little idea what it was about beforehand, I dove in. And--wow. JHJ is a master story teller.

Divided into two novellas, I finished The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky in a single sitting. A professor forms an unlikely companionship with a man known as The Eye, a lauded poet and exile. Compelled to return to their country in search of answers and his long-lost love, he asks her to watch his apartment in exchange for a substantial financial arrangement and access to his manuscripts. At first, I had no idea where this story was going--and I think you're supposed to feel that way. The uneasy feeling of not completely understanding what was happening was crucial to building the atmosphere. They are exiles, on the outside looking in, never fully accepted or comfortable in their surroundings. That's what JHJ wants the reader to feel, and he accomplishes this with gruesome imagery and deep diving into the characters' psyches. Because of this, the tension is taut and well-paced. The characters are rich and complex. The end result is a story that took my breath away.

My Heart Struck Sorrow carries those disorienting outside-looking-in feelings to archivists charged with documenting the contents of a deceased person's home, where they find a secret room whose sole contents are recordings. Upon listening to the recordings, they find a man fascinated with the folk song Stacker Lee and all its variations. At its core, MHSS is a story about grief and guilt, but it is so, so much more than that. One of the things I appreciated was the symbol and theme of music, how slight changes in tone or diction can indicate cultural or personal shifts. How music can unite people or further alienate them.

I want to reiterate how beautiful this writing is. Structured as almost a frame narrative, the partners dissect the recordings and try to make sense of the past with competing theories, both with merit, and introduce speculation and doubt that strains perception. The prose flows, the dialogue feels real and whole. This is a text I could see myself incorporating into a college syllabus with ease and finding something completely new with each read.

JHJ deals with race and and racism, sexuality and spectacle, without being preachy or apologetic. His characters are flawed and noble, carnal and restrained. The MC--both the distraught man in the present and the voice in the recordings--reminded me of the character of Lynn in Alice Walker's Meridian, and I think, in large part, this is because of the feeling of separation that JHJ masterfully strands through the novellas. They are different. They want to be accepted. And yet they can't fully find themselves in their current situations. Whether from skin colors or guilt or willful denial, they remain on the fringes.

It. Is. Powerful.

Enthralling and brilliant. Thought-provoking and horrifying. If you read one thing this year, please make it this book. 10/10 would recommend.


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