Olivia Clare Friedman, Here Lies (Grove Atlantic), 208pp. Hardback, $24.00.

A late chapter of Olivia Clare Friedman’s debut novel, Here Lies, is titled “Nevada.” Though almost the entire story takes place in near-future Louisiana, a quick road trip toward the end of the book takes the narrator-protagonist, 22-year-old Alma Lee Guidry, to an illegal graveyard outside of Boulder City. Her Western excursion proves brief, but Alma nevertheless finds an iconic Vegas duo: dashed hopes and buried secrets.

Here Lies is set in the year 2042, when very little has changed. Climate change has worsened, and the Saints no longer play football in New Orleans. But the same reruns still air on daytime TV. The big new political development is that death has become the property of the state:

Two years back, in 2040, the U.S. had begun Phase One. Our deceased were the first to surrender rights. Any act of burial was made illegal. The government gave a date—dying past it meant mandatory cremation. In Louisiana, and in every state, public cemeteries were reclaimed. Private cemeteries, even the smallest churchyards, were seized. Now all graveyards were government-owned—closed up, walled with brick or concrete, no visitors. Graves were left to grow over and be forgotten, shut away by weeds and moss and vines.

When loved ones die, they are truly taken away forever.

As regards speculative future fiction, this imaginative scenario seems unlikely. If religious institutions in America have any political power, they would probably resist an authoritarian government that steals away cemeteries and shutters funeral homes.

But in another sense, Friedman’s dystopian vision is all too real. As she explains in a recent essay (“How the Absence of a Funeral Makes Death So Much Harder For the Living”), COVID-19 postponed a great number of weddings and funerals. Friedman, who lost an older friend in January of 2021, when pandemic numbers rose drastically, became “a mourner-in-waiting,” unable to process grief in a traditional fashion because a gathering of friends and family had become unadvisable.

“What is perhaps most captivating about this novel is Alma’s role as a modern Antigone. The government has denied appropriate burial rites for our kin; how do we react?”

In Here Lies, Alma faces a similar situation. Her mother died of ovarian cancer the year before, and Alma now lives by herself. Her grief has never found a proper outlet. But when she befriends Bordelon, who is 19 and pregnant, she finds a greater sense of purpose and responsibility.

And she becomes especially determined to track down her mother’s ashes. In special cases in which the “decedent” was your last living relative in the world, the government will make an exception and allow you to reclaim your loved one’s remains. Alma begins the novel on a computer in her local library, filling out the requisite forms to retrieve her mother’s state-issued urn.

The late road trip Alma takes to Nevada is in some ways reflective of the author herself. Friedman, like her narrator-protagonist, grew up in Louisiana. As a teenaged actress, she landed the role of “Kelly Sims” on what became a hit Lifetime TV show, Any Day Now (1998–2002), which was set in Birmingham, Alabama. This work brought Friedman to California, where she eventually graduated from college with a love of the literary arts. She then accrued several graduate degrees, including a Ph.D. in poetry from UNLV in 2016.

Then she returned to the South. She is currently a professor of creative writing at the University of Southern Mississippi. And Friedman writes confidently with a Southern voice. Her novel features characters speaking with a genuine sense of place—not caricatures assuming a mock-ethnographic dialect. As Friedman has noted elsewhere, “There’s something about growing up and living in a place where it helps you look past the clichés, where you don’t feel the need to put on a thick Southern accent.” Comparisons might be made to Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (2011) or Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing (2018). But Friedman’s voice is her own. What is perhaps most captivating about Here Lies is Alma’s role as a modern Antigone. The government has denied appropriate burial rites for our kin; how do we react? In the U.S. South, the politics of the dead are especially fraught. Who has been conveniently forgotten? Who deserves a memorial? Which monuments need to be removed? Here Lies raises important questions about how we attend to our dead and how we cultivate community among the living.

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