Is the past ever dead? Can it be put behind you, and if so, how far back in the past can you leave something? Can the present – and future – be affected by a past you didn’t even realize existed?
Those are the questions readers will be asking themselves after the final page is turned in “The Past is Never,” the latest novel by Tiffany Quay Tyson. The author first left her mark in Southern fiction with “Three Rivers,” a finalist in the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Fiction. With “The Past is Never,” Tyson uses her native Southern voice to tell a story of family dysfunctions, historic myths and courage to look behind the past.
Sixteen-year-old Willett and his two younger sisters, Roberta Lynn “Bert” and Pansy, live in fictional White Horse, Mississippi. It’s 1976, and there’s not much for entertainment in the small town. Fun is something they make for themselves. They can’t help but be drawn to an old rock quarry and its cool swimming hole waters.
When their dad is home, which isn’t often, he warns them to stay away from the cursed Devil’s place. He tells them frightening stories about how the quarry was built, the lives it has claimed and haunted woods that protects it.
Dad’s away, Mama is busy, and it’s hot outside. There’s no keeping the siblings from the quarry. The three walk there together. Only two leave.
The disappearance of six-year-old Pansy changes life as they knew it for the entire family. Pansy, the unexpected “miracle child” born with four teeth, coarse black hair, a blotchy tan and a large purple birthmark on her thigh. Pansy, the feisty, the spoiled, the charmed … the gone.
So begins the unsettling future of Willett and Bert, neither who can let go of what happened that day. There’s more than enough self-blame, accusations and heartbreak to go around as their dad stays away and their mom dies of a broken heart and cigarette habit.
In turn, Willett and Bert leave home, not only to find themselves but also search for clues about their family’s past. Reports of their dad’s lonely death in Florida takes the brother and sister to the Everglades where they learn the past becomes the present, which leads to the future. As William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” To say more might spoil the thrill for readers.
Those three elements – past, present and future – are at the heart of “The Past is Never.” Readers will learn about Fern, Granny Clem, Earl and a host of others. About the creatures beyond the trees who long to give voice to the past. Tyson ties them together through alternating voices as she explores family lines, tragedies and curses.
“Those eyes you feel watching you are the eyes of your family,” Bert tells her niece seven years after Pansy disappears. “They mean you no harm.”
The author’s skillful storytelling reaches a high mark with this novel. Nothing is as it first appears in this dark, complex story that draws upon inner strength, extended family ties and personal determination. As with her first novel, Tyson has an award winner on her hands.