I have a bit of a burr under my saddle about the new publishing world lately...as I've mentioned here in the past, the largest publishing houses used to fall all over themselves offering me advance reading copies of books they wanted me to review (and this was pre-blog, so I was really just reviewing them for my own customers). It turns out that they were far more interested in my title as the GM of a big indie store, not so much in my opinion as a small indie bookstore owner (or as a blogger.)
Enter Unbridled Books, a wonderful indie publisher. I first found them reading Emily St. John Mandel's Last Night in Montreal and The Singer's Gun. Since those two great titles (go check them out!!) I've been a fan of Unbridled's darker literary fiction style. Having recently reconnected with my contacts there, I'm thrilled to be able to review a few of their new titles for you. I'm still reading one of the titles I picked up, so you'll have to be context with one review today, but more coming soon!
Peter Geye's debut novel, Safe From the Sea was a great father-son tale with a shipwreck story woven in (I read it long enough ago that I can tell you to go read it, but I can't offer a very detailed review...still, it was good enough to bear mentioning here!) So I was eager to pick up The Lighthouse Road.
The Lighthouse Road follows some familiar themes from Safe in that the father-son relationship is examined (albeit in a very different form) but I think in many ways, Geye goes deeper into his Norwegian heritage and into the ideas he first explored in his other book, and the result is wonderful.
Odd Eide is born to a mother who dies young, adopted by a man who is, in turns, a father-figure, a dissolute and a sharp but morally questionable business man. Hosea Grimm lives by a strict moral code, but one of his own devising, and as a self-appointed guardian of Odd he teaches the boy his various trades including bootleg whiskey running. Hosea's "daughter", while many year's Odd's senior, has been carrying on with the young man behind Hosea's back, leading to some unsurprising problems between the two men. Odd's story moved back in forth on time from the late 1800s, just before and after his birth, to the 1820s as he begins to find his way as an adult.
This is literary historical fiction at it's best, well-crafted, carefully researched, and still completely readable without ever being dragged into what I think of as "researching author disease". (This is, by the way, the tendency of some historical fiction authors to feel the need to fit in every single fact they ever learned on the time period they are writing in regardless of level of interest to the reader) Geye's ability to create a sense of the desolation of wintertime Minnesota logging camps, the cultural isolation of Odd's Norwegian -speaking immigrant mother, the morally bereft yet rigid Hosea's character, is exceptional. Odd's whiskey-running bravado, mixed with his far more unsure internal voice show a protagonist that is believable and never pitiable. Odd's love Rebekah is never quite the victim but never quite the hero either, a tricky bit of characterization to pull off convincingly. (there is so much more I'd like to say about the complex and compelling woman, but I refuse to give anything away at all!!) Geye continually walks the fine line of showing us tragedy and hardship without jerking on heartstrings in a maudlin way. As with Safe From the Sea, Geye is the master illusionist, showing his readers the bits of the story he wants us to see first and then pulling back just a bit more of the curtain, then a bit more, until finally the entire magical whole is visible and we can see how it all fits together.
The trick to reviewing books like this one is that most of the glowingly enthusiastic things I could tell you about the book would also give away plot points, and as I've mentioned, the "reveal" is part of the magic. Suffice it to say that I enjoyed The Lighthouse Road very much, and I think you should read it. And when you have read it, please drop a line in the comments to let me know what you thought! I'd also highly recommend this title to book groups, the number of interesting discussion points here are staggering.