Going Somewhere

A Review of Mesha Maren’s Shae

By Leo Coffey

I finished Mesha Maren’s forthcoming novel, Shae, just as the sun began to dip along the Southern sky. I work in one of downtown Knoxville’s oldest buildings and after turning the last page, I ventured up to the top floor to overlook the city, something I typically do towards the end of my shift. Seeing the world from that point of view makes me feel small, but I like it. I like that people can’t see me from their cars, moving down the interstate towards God knows where. I think about where they’re going, if they even know. Afterwards as I drive home, the sun now disintegrated into night, I think about a quote from Winnie-the-Pooh that is quoted repeatedly in Shae: “Sometimes when I’m going somewhere, I wait. And then somewhere comes to me.”

The novel takes place in West Virginia and explores themes of motherhood, gender identity, postpartum depression, addiction, and first love. When Shae meets Cam, who has just moved to town after her mother’s death, she becomes fascinated with her taste in music and uses this interest to bridge a friendship. Their relationship quickly progresses into romance as the two spend all of their spare time together, even skipping class to listen to music. They continue to soak up each other’s time once Shae becomes pregnant with their daughter, Eva. During the pregnancy, Cam begins to explore her gender identity, using she/her pronouns and trying on Shae’s clothes. The spark begins to fade as the pregnancy and Cam’s gender identity become the focus of their relationship, although the two of them remain emotionally tethered to each other.

After a traumatic C-section that results in a deep infection that takes over Shae’s body, things shift. In Appalachia, opioids are handed out like candy, and Shae falls victim, her addiction progressing into reliant substance use. While the novel is primarily footed in Shae’s path towards addiction, the softer moments of this story are where Maren’s poetic intuition and love for the craft truly shine. Take the following passage from the novel’s opening lines as an example:

“I thought it meant something deeply bad, the fact that we don’t remember it the same way. But sometimes now I picture Cam’s version and it feels more real. I can smell the rain on the concrete and the way it fuzzes up the air, the heat turning the rain into steam. It smells like sulphur, too, out on the football field, sulphur and black powder, the ground charred from last night’s fireworks.”

The book is saturated with glistening prose and residual imagery that flows in the same beautiful vein as the passage above. From beginning to end, the novel captures the rawness of the land, its inherent beauty, its people, the way a place can shadow over who a person becomes.

This is a familiar story for many, with similar accounts becoming too common across the region. What I really love about Maren’s novels – and her short stories, too – is that the characters are vulnerable, raw, real. Of course, there are others in Appalachia and the South who are writing these kinds of stories, like Ashleigh Bryant Phillips, Silas House, and Carter Sickels. With all the talent coming out of the region, I think it’s safe to say that Maren has developed her own corner of queer rural literature, adding to the conversation surrounding addiction new perspectives with nuance and grace. The Appalachian literary world is lucky to have Mesha Maren and we’ll gladly claim her as our own.

Leo Coffey

Leo Coffey is a trans fiction writer born and raised in Southern Appalachia. His stories engage with class distinctions, rural life, gender identity and sexuality, and the tension between past and present. He earned his BA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina Asheville. His work has appeared in Still: The Journal, Appalachian Review, and Dead Mule. He is the Fiction Editor for Reckon Review.