Mesha Maren’s Sugar Run is the kind of novel that grabs you by the neck and hauls you down into the darker depths of the South, where degradation of the environment and of the self become so fused it’s hard to tell one from the other.
The two main characters, Jodi and Miranda, are imperfect and make rather self-destructive choices, even as they’re seeking to do the right thing. Examples include hiding drugs in the shed when Jodi is just out of jail on parole, or Miranda kidnapping her children and then getting a bartending job at the only bar in town, knowing her husband is arriving soon to perform on stage. The characters in Sugar Run drink too much, take too many pills, and are generally ruining their lives in an inescapable cycle of poverty and loss.
Maren’s writing brings these characters and their world to vivid and painful life. Jodi and Miranda’s world rules its residents’ lives in a way that limits the trajectory of their emotional, economic, and social welfare. It is a society that keeps its people in poverty by removing their means of agency. It is a society that does not accept them—whether it is because they are poor, or because of their sexuality, or because they have just been released from jail. In this world, these characters, and the real-life people living in environments such as this, can be fiercely loyal to family and ideals. In Jodi’s case, she is loyal to her expired dream of saving a young boy she once knew and making a life for herself on her dead grandmother’s land—which no longer belongs to her family. Everything else is a moving target, and, as Maren’s novel reads on, perhaps even Jodi’s most concrete dreams are made of smoke.
Maren’s novel is a bleak and hard look at the lives of two young women, yet there’s hope and redemption in there, too.
One caveat. Sugar Run becomes intense, so fair warning to future readers. But while the drug use, sex, and southern drug-lord violence in the novel became a little too much for me at times, it would undeniably be a different novel if it wasn’t there. What does this say about the tone, content, and messaging of Maren’s world and our ability to understand how it functions, moves, and makes sense? What does this say about the larger picture, which is our ability to comprehend and empathize with the lives of people living in environments like Jodi and Miranda? These are important concepts to consider, and Maren’s novel gives them color and forces us to look—whether we like it, or not.