The southern United States has long produced great stories. In Playing with Matches, Carolyn Wall carries on the legacy of strong storytelling established by the Southern writers who have preceded her. Playing with Matches is a novel comprised of powerful emotions, which gives each character a unique beauty despite their flaws.
The narrator is Clea, a young girl being raised by a neighbor of her alcoholic and prostitute mother. Clea’s proximity to the woman who abandoned her is a unique premise, since Clea (unlike many abandoned children) knows who her birth mother is. Clea spends time at her mother’s home, often sneaking in for unwanted visits where she is made privy to facets of her mother’s lifestyle that disrupt any chance of an innocent and normal childhood. This dysfunctional lifestyle, combined with her intelligence, influences her narration of childhood events from forming friendships to trouble at school. Clea will likely remind readers of Harper Lee’s famous girl-character Scout.
The first (one-page) chapter begins as Clea returns home, this journey the catalyst for the childhood recollection that immediately follows. The youthful narration continues for the first half of the novel, and the occurrence of a tragedy mars Clea’s recollection of her childhood and consequently destroys what little innocence she possessed. These events foreshadow the tragedies in her adult life, and in the midst of the story the reader is brought, with no real warning, back to the present. Clea is returning home, which is where the book started, and the gaps in her life will be clarified in the latter half of the story, creating a two-fold sort of suspense in which the reader is eager to know what will happen and what has already happened.
Race and religion are prevalent themes here. Clea is Caucasian, but she is by far a minority in her Mississippi town. The neighbors raising her are African-American, as are her friends and many of her peers at school. It is a major epiphany, and not really a welcome one, when Clea first realizes the unusualness of this situation. Wall writes this episode well, and Clea’s abrupt knowledge of race can be interpreted as a commentary on the many terrible injustices propagated by racial strife. The issue of race often manifests itself in literature, and Wall’s presentation of this theme is skillful because she doesn’t avoid it all together—a grievous error—but at the same time she does not make it predominant enough to detract from the story she must tell.
Along with such serious themes, the writing abounds with metaphors and symbols, which credits Wall’s writing ability. Entrapment is the dominant theme, since there are all sorts of prisons, both metaphorical and literal, that are focus points of the story. The relevance of an actual prison, called Hell’s Farm, to events cannot be overlooked. Also, Clea makes friends with two boys who are important characters in the story. Both of these supporting characters suffer from a sort of imprisonment: one lives in a tree because of fear of attack, and Clea rescues the other from a cage. These varied forms of incarceration represent the many ways in which Clea and the other characters are or become trapped by the events of their past.
Perhaps the greatest metaphor is the massive storm that descends upon the small Mississippi town in the novel’s climax. Wall displays abundant irony by using a destructive storm (and an adulterous husband) as the reason Clea returns home, only to have the storm (and the husband) follow her and transgress upon the place that was supposed to be her sanctuary. The message is typical: one cannot avoid problems no matter where one runs, be it away from home or returning there, and as the novel reaches its climactic finish, the story reveals itself to be ultimately about redemption. Clea’s confrontation with the past shows forgiveness as the only combatant against guilt. Wall has a wonderful sense of realism in her storytelling by showing how difficult forgiveness can be, and she suggests quite accurately that doing the right thing is never easy even when necessary.
Some contemporary authors make Southern fiction campy by warping the genre with unneeded post-modern techniques, or they emphasize the dark and gothic to the point of absurdity. Wall avoids these issues by keeping the writing simple and, most importantly, honest. This method of writing creates a poignant story that reveals the human capacity for overcoming tragedy and makes Playing with Matches a truly wonderful novel from an adept writer.