No hype – as revealing, sparkling and spacious as its landscape
This was an extraordinary first novel. Set in Canada in the 1860s, it is primarily (to me, anyway) about displacement. All the characters and communities within this book are ‘out of place’, whether the mainly Scottish settlers, the Norwegian ‘Amish type’ community or the Indians whose identity has been displaced by the more recent settlers.
The central characters also suffer displacement from themselves and their society – almost everyone is an ‘outsider’ in some ways.
Penney constructs a beautifully paced story of physical journey which absolutely mirrors the internal journeys to self discovery of several of the central characters.
The ending is not quite what one yearns for, though it is absolutely as it needs to be, in order to keep faith with itself. When the writer brings the reader to understand and appreciate her characters, we cannot help but want ‘good outcomes’ for them – as in real life we want ‘good outcomes’ for those we care for. However, as in real life, nothing ever really ‘concludes’, and a ‘Hollywood ending’, though it might initially give a sugary, instantaneous comfort rush, so often fails, because it feels inauthentic. And Penney is deeply authentic – we get the ending which she hints at, throughout the book, given her characters, the society they live in, and the environment they endeavour to survive and prosper in. So the ending has left me with a sense of loss, pain, resignation, which again perfectly inhabits the ‘truth’ of her characters.
Amazing sense of landscape, both historical and geographical. It reminded me, in some ways of Guterson’s ‘Snow Falling on Cedar’ – a similar ‘hook’ of the need to solve a crime, and a profound sense of the land itself as a major entity, another character, within the book – almost the land itself is the main character, rather than the human stories which play out against it.