Elizabeth Harris

Winner of the Gival Press Novel Award - 2014.

A violent and unusual crime is committed in a frankly imagined rural Texas of 1936: two ranchers attempt to castrate a neighbor under circumstances deriving from standard gender and social relations. The daughter of prominent landowners, regarded as the cause of this crime, is outcast from home and family, rescued by clergy in the role of plot angels, and becomes a paid laborer in other people's homes, where she undergoes a muted, nearly twenty-year recovery from trauma. An authorial narrator who as a girl observed women nursing the elderly, as this character does, invents her story for reasons of her own. A read both absorbing and stylish.

“In Mayhem the pitiful truth of motivations behind a woman's three lives is told in spare, sometimes lyric, sometimes cruel, language of late 19th and early 20th century Texas German farmers. Time is layered so carefully, any reader will recognize age-old prejudices underlie personal choices. Strengths and follies of Mayhem's characters are sources of both comedy and terror. One cannot help but acknowledge, through the ironic vision, including fictions within fiction, of Elizabeth Harris' work, ‘Yes, life is like that.’” —Carolyn Osborn, author of Where We Are Now

“In Elizabeth Harris’s exquisite new novel about a small Central Texas community in the early decades of the last century, mayhem is something more and something different than the sort of violence or turbulence that the word commonly denotes: it is—more subtly, and more originally—a condition of the characters’ ordinary lives and familiar relations. Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman is one of the most intimate, vivid, and textured literary evocations of a bygone time and place and woman’s life that I have read, yet also one of the most mysterious. That’s because Harris possesses a combination of craft and wisdom found only in the finest historical novelists: the craft to render the past luminously in imagination, and the wisdom to recognize that that past can only be imagined, never known. Gripping, haunting, elusive, Mayhem is an extraordinary achievement.” —Evan Carton, author of Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America

Mayhem is a wonder of a novel. A careful evocation of time and place, community and character, pitched in a voice rich with the lyric poetry of everyday speech, the novel seems not so much narrated as blown up by a breeze. It’s not enough to claim that I believed every word of it; I felt every syllable. his archetypal tale of crime and punishment, so filled with tragedy and sympathy, is one of the most wildly alive novels I have ever read. Every sentence teems with truths both literal and metaphorical, and yet, for all its wisdom and profundity, it reaches us in the manner of a folk ballad, high and sweet and clear.”—Michael Parker, author of All I Have in This World and The Watery Part of the World

“With an eye for both the beauty of nature and the brutality of humans reminiscent of E. Annie Proulx, Elizabeth Harris tells the riveting story of a vicious crime and one woman’s subsequent fall from grace. Set in Central Texas in the first half of the 20th century, Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman captures the quirks and intricacies of rural Texas culture. Mayhem’s protagonist, Evelyn Gant, navigates the constraints placed on women, and her necessary obedience to her husband results in a momentary concession that ends life as she knows it. Like the fiction of Marilynne Robinson, everything in Harris’s writing is deeply consequential; and her ability to convey both the natural and social worlds of Texas in the 1930s astounds. Extraordinary!” —Mary Pauline Lowry, author of Wildfire

“A great novel gives us Genesis, and so Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman calls a world into being. We get not only the odor and crackle of rural Texas beginning a hundred years ago, but also the spirits of that time and place. We suffer with a rancher’s wife, a woman catastrophically misunderstood. Violence proves inevitable — but then comes the real miracle. Elizabeth Harris summons up not one world but several, in rich and moving succession. It’s as if redemption were sympathy: as if to peer deeply into anyone is to understand everyone. If this sounds less like a God and more like a great storyteller, well, that’s what we’ve got. Harris squeezes palaver and tears from her Texas clay, even while making sure we see the gifted hands at work.” — John Domini, author of A Tomb on the Periphery and other novels, as well as stories, criticism, and poetry.

Elizabeth Harris

Elizabeth Harris is the author of Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman, which won the 2014 Gival Press Novel Award and has been reviewed with enthusiasm, praised as essential cultural Texana, and listed among the 10 Best Books of 2015. For its style and its penetration of the Western myth, Mayhem has been compared to fiction of Katherine Anne Porter, Wendell Berry, Cormac McCarthy, and Annie Proulx. Harris’s first book, The Ant Generator, a short story collection, was chosen by Marilynne Robinson for the prestigious John Simmons Award from the University of Iowa Press. Those and uncollected stories appeared in Antioch Review, Epoch, Chicago Review, North American Review, Shenandoah, and other magazines, and have been anthologized in New Stories from the South, Best of Wind, The Iowa Award, and Literary Austin. She taught fiction-writing at the University of Texas at Austin for a number of years and counts many successful writers among her former students. Visit Elizabeth Harris at