Aloma is an orphan, raised by her aunt and uncle, educated at a mission school in the Kentucky mountains. At the start of the novel, she moves to an isolated tobacco farm to be with her lover, a young man named Orren, whose family has died in a car accident, leaving him in charge. The place is rough and quiet; Orren is overworked and withdrawn. Left mostly to her own, Aloma must decide whether to stay with Orren and accept the rigors of commitment, or fight her way to independence.
Morgan writes near-perfect prose, whether she’s describing the mountains of Kentucky or sex or the acute longing for consolation that brings impoverished farmers together at church each Sunday. If we can all agree that it’s a struggle to write well about sex, or about God, then we’d all do well to spend some time with C.E. Morgan’s novel, one of the most astonishing fiction debuts of recent years ... While the dangers posed to the farm ostensibly drive the plot forward through the long, parched summer – and Morgan’s evocative language is perhaps at its sharpest and clearest when describing the unforgiving landscape that surrounds Aloma—the book is essentially a study in loneliness ... This first novel is written with all the deceptive simplicity of a poem and yet the incantatory resonance of a prayer.
As the story unfolds, descriptions are so vivid, yet so integrated and organic, that the reader can almost feel the lassitude of stifling humid air, smell the rich, warm earth, and see the furrowed fields, the dark mountains in the distance ... The level of poetic detail makes All the Living a slow, seductive dive into another time and place, a deep, quiet place foreign to the frantic pace of contemporary urban life ... In sharp contrast is the dialogue. With its jarring grammatical lapses and rough syntax, each conversational exchange can be a tough slog for those with a keen ear for proper usage. However, Morgan, a native Kentuckian, gets the rhythms just right and makes graceful transitions ... But while the writing can be exquisite, the story line of All the Living is less affecting, though it has a subtle emotional pull. Less plot-driven than slow-moving reflection, it tracks a kind of coming of age.
...the writing is simply astonishing: The way small movements betray a character, the effects of hard labor, the damaging power of communication withheld. It is the writing of a much older (at times, even world-weary) author. Descriptions of the landscape of the rural South remind a reader of Willa Cather. The characters’ utter lack of a sense of entitlement calls to mind Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre ... How is it possible for a young writer to know so much about self-sacrifice?