Two stock-farmers in 1936 Texas are accused of castrating a neighbor. Mayhem is the story of their crime and its consequences–the violent past and standard gender relations that enable it, and its economic displacement of the modest, well-connected woman who occasions it.
Around the edges of the story, an authorial narrator admits why she fictionalizes this past and shapes the novel as she does.
Mayhem originated, as the author-character in it says, with my childhood memories of white women in small towns who “lived in” at private houses as geriatric nurses, working for room and board and very little more. They seemed like middle-class women but were treated differently. In my memory, there was always a story about them that nobody would tell me: some scandal or family misfortune that had brought them to that life. I wrote Mayhem to find out what one such story might’ve been.
From Huff Post Books interview with the writer
“I was also inspired by Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table which combines fictional memoir with crime story. And for me, having an author present as a character in the fiction led to places I hadn’t expected.”
HuffingtonPost: Elizabeth Harris on her Forthcoming Texas Novel
Advance praise for Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman:
“. . .an old story of injustice brought creatively to new life by an award-winning writer. Thoughtful readers who enjoy literary historical fiction will add it to their must-read list.”
— Carolyn Haley, New York Journal of Books
“When you decide you know where this is going, Evelyn hijacks the plot. It’s not what you think it is—it’s better.”
— Michelle Newby, Lone Star Literary Life Review
“Elizabeth Harris’s Mayhem is a rich and deeply moving novel. . .triggered by a grisly crime in Central Texas during the Depression.. . . Every detail rings true. This is a novel that will keep you reading well into the night.”
— James Magnuson, Director of the Michener Center for Writers and author of Famous Writers I Have Known
“A beautiful piece of work; love the language, and its clarity is what convinces the reader.. . . Here is a novel worth any readerʼs time. From the first chapter to the last,the author remains faithful to the reader.”
— Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, winner of The Ivan Landorf Award by the National Book Critics Circle (2014).
“In Mayhem the pitiful truth of motivations behind a woman’s three lives in is told in spare, sometimes lyric, sometimes cruel, language. . .Time is layered so carefully, any reader will recognize age-old prejudices underlie personal choices. . . .One cannot help but acknowledge, through the ironic vision, including fictions within fiction, of Elizabeth Harris’s work, “Yes, life is like that.”
— Carolyn Osborn, author of Where We Are Now
“Mayhem, with its intertwined families, its vivid evocation of rural Texas in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, and its masterful combination of suspense and inevitability, is wonderfully entertaining – and, like all the best fictions, lives in my imagination as true.”
— Betty Sue Flowers, author of several books of poetry and editor, with Bill Moyers, of Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth.
Mayhem is a wonder of a novel. A careful evocation of time and place, community and character, pitched in a voice rich with the lyric poetry of everyday speech, the novel seems not so much narrated as blown up by a breeze. It’s not enough to claim that I believed every word of it; I felt every syllable. This archetypal tale of crime and punishment, so filled with tragedy and sympathy, is one of the most wildly alive novels I have ever read. Every sentence teems with truths both literal and metaphorical, and yet, for all its wisdom and profundity, it reaches us in the manner of a folk ballad, high and sweet and clear.
— Michael Parker, author of All I Have in This World, The Watery Part of the World, etc.
“A great novel gives us Genesis, and so Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman calls a world into being. We get not only the odor and crackle of rural Texas beginning a hundred years ago, but also the spirits of that time and place. We suffer with a rancher’s wife, a woman catastrophically misunderstood. Violence proves inevitable — but then comes the real miracle. Elizabeth Harris summons up not one world but several, in rich and moving succession. Itʼs as if redemption were sympathy: as if to peer deeply into anyone is to understand everyone. If this sounds less like a God and more like a great storyteller, well, thatʼs what weʼve got. Harris squeezes palaver and tears from her Texas clay, even while making sure we see the gifted hands at work.”
— John Domini, author of A Tomb on the Periphery and other novels, as well as stories, criticism, and poetry.
With an eye for both the beauty of nature and the brutality of humans reminiscent of E. Annie Proulx, Elizabeth Harris tells the riveting story of a vicious crime and one woman’s subsequent fall from grace. Set in Central Texas in the first half of the 20th century, “Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman” captures the quirks and intricacies of rural Texas culture. Mayhem’s protagonist, Evelyn Gant, navigates the constraints placed on women, and her necessary obedience to her husband results in a momentary concession that ends life as she knows it. Like the fiction of Marilynne Robinson, everything in Harris’s writing is deeply consequential; and her ability to convey both the natural and social worlds of Texas in the 1930s astounds. Extraordinary!
— Mary Pauline Lowry, author of “Wildfire”
Read an Excerpt of Mayhem.