The Beguiled (1966) by Thomas Cullinan

A 1966 novel about an injured soldier in the American Civil War slowly recovering in a southern school filled with three women and five teenage girls.

The Southern Gothic Americana sort of setting is as appealing and atmospheric as one could expect, and Cullinan makes sure it’s all brimming with subtext, sexuality and repression. The plot is pulpy but the restraint and lackadaisical pacing Cullinan sets out staging it in sees more attention paid to what the various characters interactions with each other reveals more than anything else. Cullinan makes a point out of covering the viewpoints of every character except the beguiling man that provides the fulcrum for the story.

cullinan, thomas the beguiled horizon

A lot of the subtext and what’s left between the lines really is interesting here, especially the points about gender and nuanced relationships, but when the book gets its most literal towards the end it’s not as strong as its more sensual and subtler beginnings. The midpoint is the highpoint, where Cullinan manages to work castration (of a sort) into the story in a natural way that evolves the story’s tone and stakes engagingly. But it’s not the sort of historical fiction that sticks with you, and never really seems to gel to whatever its greatest purpose or meaning could be. Three mushrooms and a wounded leg.

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