Kate Wyer’s Debut Novel 'Black Krim' Is a Profound Meditation on Reconnection, Imperfect Beauty - and Gardening

Kate Wyer’s debut novel Black Krim heralds an exciting new literary voice. At once personal and universal, extraordinarily intimate and profoundly timely, it is a story of the unexpected connections that we make and their ability to transform us. Full of interesting challenges to the increasing primacy of digital experience over human engagement, it also reveals the return of obscure breeds of tomato to the world of literary titling, which can be no bad thing. 

Though relatively unknown, New Jersey-native Wyer has been quietly publishing innovative and unique stories and poems for over a decade, and is the winner of several of the small-but-prestigious prizes that often presage larger-scale success. To further bolster her up-and-comer credentials, no less a luminary than Madison Smartt Bell called Black Krim ‘an elegant study of alienation and reconnection’. So pay heed. 

What sets it apart is the arresting distinctness of the voices and the way they echo against one anotherThe title refers to a special variety of tomato – “A dark and bulbous type…discarded for a century because the need for symmetry and neatness was so strong”. The plot, which is largely straightforward, involves a young woman named Corbina who welcomes into her home an elderly homeless man, who it emerges has left behind his ordered existence in an archetypically American act of deliberate walking away. Corbin’s mother, Birgit, senses that someone else has managed an emotional intimacy with her distant offspring in a way that she herself never has, and sets out on a series of investigations that will shock her to her core. 

The book’s value doesn’t lie in elaborate plotting, as the above will have made plain; nor is it to be found in structural pyrotechnics, since it employs the kind of alternating, intertwined architecture that will be new to hardly anyone. What sets it apart is the arresting distinctness of the voices and the way they echo against one another, creating fresh perspectives and insights at every turn. 

There is a very real sense here of the value and dangers of real-world human connectionIt’s these that give the novel its strong feeling of being a real, lived-in space, providing plenty of room for the big, unanswerable questions it wants to ask about life and potentials for growth and change. (Thankfully, despite its governing horticultural metaphor, it resists the temptation of easy answers.) There is a very real sense here of the value and dangers of real-world human connection, as opposed to the relatively safe and sanitised version of connection offered by the digital screens with which the modern world largely surrounds us, and that gives the book a very timely feel.

If there’s a criticism to be made, it’s that Black Krim could have benefitted from a greater grounding in a specific time and place. The setting and characters ring true, certainly, and there’s something to be said for the universalising effects of careful vagueness; nonetheless, the settings lack a certain cultural and historic specificity that could have given them even more palpable life. It’s a lack particularly sorely-felt in a book that is so good when it does elect to furnish us with tiny and well-observed details. A reflective and fascinating series of riffs on memory and forgetting are provoked, for instance, by the keys to a new/old house, and are all the more potent for the particularity of their context. 

Black Krim pulls one slowly into its web of small mysteries and large truths. Lonely children, departed fathers, confused mothers whose best intentions are hell for their daughters, old men trying for the second act that F. Scott Fitzgerald said was denied to American lives – the novel uses old themes to ask important and relevant questions (cultivation and discipline versus freedom and rambling, real and dangerous connection versus the alienating luxuries of the digital age). It doesn’t hurt either that it’s a distinctive package, with lovely illustrations to mark the beginning of each new chapter; more publishers could stand to follow Cobalt’s lead in this respect. And this first novel from a very promising new talent will certainly leave readers looking forward to more. 

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