Groundskeeping is a beautifully written debut novel that contends with questions of class, family and love. Cole’s protagonist Owen is working as a groundskeeper at a university when he meets Alma, a writer who has taken up a prestigious fellowship. Over the course of their relationship Owen is forced to better understand his relationship to his family, his home state and what role he will play in his changing life.
The novel is set in 2016, and Cole handles the political differences between the characters thoughtfully. Owen vehemently disagrees with his mother and stepfather, both Trump supporters, but they show a great deal of kindness to Owen and Alma. Their political views sit in stark contrast with the hospitality they show to Alma, who is Muslim. Cole renders rural Kentucky complexly; this is a contemporary novel that handles the subject of class with such intelligence and care. The rift that develops in Owen and Alma’s relationship is founded in her classism, even though she is a second-generation immigrant she has a comparatively privileged background, she went to an Ivy League college, she mocks Owen when he is accepted to a lesser-known writing fellowship.
The prose is dazzling, the world of the novel is created through gorgeous sensory detail, this is one of the best written debut novels I have read this year.