There was a lot of buzz surrounding this in the ‘book-terverse’ and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy. Having finished it, I’m not entirely sure why I’ve waited so long to read any Jonathan Evison. His ability to write what appears at first to be a really ‘sweet’ story, but which in reality is anything but, is superbly clever.
So what’s it about?
With Bernard, her husband of fifty-five years now in the grave, seventy-eight-year-old Harriet Chance impulsively sets sail on an ill-conceived Alaskan cruise that her late husband had planned. But what she hoped would be a voyage leading to a new lease of life becomes a surprising and revelatory journey into Harriet’s past.
There, amid the buffets and lounge singers, between the imagined appearances of her late husband and the very real arrival of her estranged daughter mid-way through the cruise, Harriet is forced to take a long look back, confronting the truth about pivotal events that changed the course of her life. And in the process she discovers that she’s been living the better part of that life under entirely false assumptions.
Part-dysfunctional love story, part exploration of the relationship between mothers and daughters, nothing is what it seems in this charming tale of what it truly means to begin again.
Through Harriet’s interactions with her ‘difficult’ daughter Caroline, her son Skip, and Bernard himself (is she going a bit mental? The reader, and her offspring, are never quite sure…), we are given an incredibly vivid look at her life so far. Finally released from the shackles of a marriage in which her daughter describes her as ‘servant, nurse… practically his mother’, we are introduced to a 78 year old woman whose relationship with her children is beginning to show all the signs of suffocating role reversal.
Harriet is no longer a pushover. Bernard’s illness has taken its toll and changed her forever. Just when you think you know where the story is going, another layer is peeled away and the story takes off in an entirely new direction. Similarly, just as you feel you’re getting to know the ‘gentle’, strait-laced Harriet Chance she comes out with something like: ‘Admit it, the real reason you chose cremation was because you yearned to see his mortal shell pulverized’. By the end of the novel, the reader is left in no doubt about the horrifying reality of Bernard’s final 18 months.
Harriet certainly has regrets and, particularly in the case of her daughter, is sad at how their relationship has turned out but she doesn’t over-indulge in vast quantities of misplaced guilt. I found this a great relief – after all, I didn’t particularly like the insufferable Caroline and actually identified more with the mother than the daughter. Harriet is, despite everything, a very practical and (perhaps surprisingly) a very independent woman: ‘Darlings, if you really want to help me, fix that garage door… if you want to comfort me, how about sending an Easter card?’
Evison’s ability to capture the somewhat fraught mother-daughter relationship is just brilliant. Does he have sisters I wonder? ‘Why does it always come to this between her and Caroline? As though they’re out of patience before they’ve even begun… after the briefest of exchanges their relationship devolves into this prickly state of nervous exhaustion’.
Her children may be concerned about Bernard’s continued ‘presence’ in her life. She categorically is not and it undoubtedly serves a very real narrative purpose: ‘Just suppose I took a little comfort in it… I suppose you two would want to deprive me of that, wouldn’t you?’
The various threads of conflict (and there are a lot of them!), as well as the uncovering of some fairly earth-shattering secrets creates a delightfully uncomfortable, unpredictable and gripping read. One of my favourites of the year.
About the author
Jonathan Evison is an American writer best known for his debut novel All About Lulu published in 2008, which won critical acclaim, including the Washington State Book Award. In 2009, Evison was awarded a Richard Buckley Fellowship from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation. A second novel, West of Here, will be released in February 2011 from Algonquin. Editor Chuck Adams (Water for Elephants, A Reliable Wife, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers Homes in New England) has called West of Here the best novel he’s worked on in over four decades of publishing.
In his teens, Evison was the founding member and frontman of the Seattle punk band March of Crimes, which included future members of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.
Born in San Jose, California, he now lives on an island in Western Washington.