Book Review: Katy Simpson Smith, The Everlasting

The EverlastingThe Everlasting by Katy Simpson Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Everlasting is an ambitious historical novel that confronts literature’s central questions about love and death in novel ways. The frailty of the body and the resilience of the human spirit in the face of mortality are explored through the lives of a 21st Century researcher in biology facing his own ominous medical symptoms and failing marriage, to a 16th Century noblewoman of mixed African heritage who must come to terms with her second marriage and problematic pregnancy, a 9th Century monk who tends bodies in the prutridarium while longing for his first male love, and a young Christian girl from the 2nd Century who faces her own first love and the dangers of martyrdom for her faith. All are connected by place, each story occurring in Rome in a different age, as well as by a religious relic and the interjections of the ultimate unreliable narrator, Satan, whose perspective spans all time, even our own future, and who suffers his own loss of love.

The subtitle could well be ‘four linked novellas’ instead of ‘a novel,’ and at times the story suffers a little from this device. Each character is given two chapters, which allows their stories to be developed more fully, though interweaving shorter chapters or passages might have made the stories feel more interconnected. Nonetheless, the thematic connections are there and though each story could stand on its own, the impact of telling them in concert is much greater.

As always, Katy Simpson Smith is precise in her details and accurate to the historical period. She brings in elements like the issue of race or burial practices that may seem unexpected but at the same time are revelatory. Her characters, imperfect as they are, are compelling—even Satan has his human side—and though the novel is anything but preachy, it grapples with serious spiritual questions that remain as relevant today as in the periods Smith transports us to. This is a novel that will stay with you long after you turn the last page and one that will reward rereading.

View all my reviews

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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