William Styron’s “Lie Down in Darkness”

by Jess

I really, really wanted to love Styron’s first novel, published in 1951 when Styron was 28 years old. But I didn’t love it. I barely even liked it. There were standout moments, of course, beautiful, glowing descriptions of Tidewater Virginia that makes me homesick as hell, but the overall mood of the book is unalleviated bleakness.

Jonathan Yardley captured the situation perfectly in his Washington Post review of the novel. He writes:

By the 1970s, when he was writing “Sophie’s Choice,” Styron had come to understand that catastrophe and/or tragedy must be alleviated (and thus in a way illuminated) by humor, but in his mid-20s he had yet to learn that lesson. The passage quoted above about the Tidewater gossips is the exception rather than the rule in “Lie Down in Darkness.” Setting out to write the story of a family doomed by its inability to love, he became so bogged down in the agony of it all — as Peyton ruminates, “everywhere I turn I seem to walk deeper and deeper into some terrible despair” — that he ended up writing a 400-page dirge that ultimately is far more stifling than enriching.

Now that I’m finished with Lie Down in Darkness, I feel a need to cleanse my palate with a story that strikes more than just one note. Let’s see what the library turns up for me this week.

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