Sifting through the memories of a long and eventful life, Emma Garnet Tate, the heroine of Kaye Gibbons's new novel, is drawn back to an unforgettable day in 1842 when her slave-owning father murdered a black man on their Virginia plantation. From this bloodcurdling opening, On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon progresses through the stages of Tate's fictional autobiography, from her privileged but harrowing antebellum childhood through her marriage to a saintly North Carolina doctor who later tends the horribly maimed casualties of the Civil War.
To its credit, Gibbons's story is always doing—or attempting—two things at once: portraying the troubled domestic existence of a family dominated by Emma's bigoted and violent father while giving us a broader picture of southern life before and after the war. But Gibbons's efforts to find an authentic historical tone results in a vocabulary and style so stilted and eccentric that the novel often seems to have been translated into English from a quaintly archaic—or highly private—language. (Putnam, $22.95)
Bottom Line: Despite awkward lingo, a nicely detailed portrait of the Old South