Sweet Briar professor’s debut novel celebrates 25th anniversary with reissue

Sweet Briar professor John Gregory Brown
Sweet Briar professor John Gregory Brown. Photo by Paige Critcher

A 25th anniversary edition of John Gregory Brown’s debut “Decorations In A Ruined Cemetery” is available now from The University of South Carolina Press as part of the publisher’s Southern Revivals series. Brown directs Sweet Briar’s creative writing program and has taught at the College since 1994, when the novel was released. The reissue includes a new introduction by the author and features his artwork on the cover.

“A luminous and heartbreaking tale of identity, devotion, and regret,” Brown’s first book, according to the publisher’s website, “examines family, race, and faith in a heartbreaking tale of identity, devotion, and regret.”

Decorations In A Ruined CemeteryThe story centers on the Eagen family of New Orleans, Irish Catholics of “mixed blood” in a city where race defines destiny. In 1965, Thomas Eagen and his 12-year-old twins, Meredith and Lowell, abruptly drive off, leaving his second wife, Catherine, and their home. As they cross Lake Pontchartrain, a section of the bridge collapses, injuring Murphy Warrington, an African American man who once worked for Thomas’s father. Murphy becomes the catalyst for a series of revelations about Thomas’s light-skinned black mother and the reasons she abandoned her husband and son when Thomas was an infant.

“John Gregory Brown’s compassionate vision of human destiny is one that contains both suffering and the possibility of deliverance,” wrote the New York Times Book Review when the novel was first released. “Artistry like this is unclassifiable.”

The Times called it “moving, wise, and wonderful,” and the Boston Globe predicted a bright future for its author. “Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery is a sensitive, graceful piece of writing with an emotional candor about it that speaks well for John Gregory Brown’s future life as a writer.”

Brown is the Julia Jackson Nichols Professor of English and Creative Writing at Sweet Briar College and the author of the novels “The Wrecked, Blessed Body of Shelton Lafleur,” “Audubon’s Watch” and “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere.” His honors include a Lyndhurst Prize, the Lillian Smith Award, the John Steinbeck Award, a Howard Foundation fellowship, the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities Book of the Year Award and the Emyl Jenkins Sexton Literary Award for Fiction from the Library of Virginia. Recently, Brown has also been dabbling in photography and visual art. Information about his writing and art is on his website.