Do not – I repeat, DO NOT – begin this book unless you have some time to read it. For one thing, it clocks in at a whopping 800 pages. And for another, far more important, reason, it is nearly impossible to put down.
The first of a planned trilogy, Natchez Burning introduces us to Penn Cage, a mid-forties mayor of Natchez, Mississippi, whose father, revered local doctor Tom Cage, has been arrested for murdering Viola, a former nurse of his.
The story unfolds through the eyes of quite a few characters, including Tom Cage, Caitlin (Penn’s newspaper publisher fiancee), and a slew of bad guys. Only Penn speaks to us in first person, which makes him the character we get to know the best. Then again, even at 800 pages, it’s difficult to know all the characters in this book terribly well.
There are two story lines here: the present tale, centered around Tom Cage’s murder arrest, and the ’60s saga, in which a KKK splinter group ruled Natchez with cruelty, prejudice, and no small amount of viciousness. Led by Brody Royal, this killer crew targeted anyone who threatened the white status quo, regardless of skin color or socioeconomic status.
The stories converge when Tom is arrested, and as Penn slowly discovers the links between his father and Brody Royal’s organization, he also begins to grasp the extent of Natchez’s violent history.
Throughout the sprawling story lines, characters, plots and subplots, there is one thread that binds it all together: a man’s coming to terms with the knowledge that his father is not the stuff of super hero comic books, but rather a flawed, complex man. It is this simple, age-old truism that makes this book so compelling and riveting. We hold our breaths as Penn uncovers one secret after another, hoping – along with him – that his father is the man we think he is. When we are told at one point that Tom is exhausted from carrying the burden of other’s expectations, we empathize with him, even as we hope those expectations are deserved.
As much as I enjoyed this book, though, I do have some issues with it, namely its ending. Iles leaves several questions unanswered, which almost feels cheap and underhanded considering we just spent nearly 800 pages engaging with his characters. I cannot tell you how frustrating the ending is.
Some of the characters are straight out of Central Casting for bigoted bad guys, and their one-dimensionality stands in stark contrast to how well developed other characters are.
Still, though, this is one heck of a fantastic read. I can’t wait for the next one.