Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Review: West of Here by Jonathan Evison

This is a big book. It's not just long, it has very big, discussable ideas underpinning the text: environmental impact, Native Rights, the West as a place for reinvention, etc. It's a saga. It's also a big deal, generating a lot of buzz in the industry. And like so many other books in similar positions, it fell short for me.

I had a college geology professor who often said that he thought the word dam should always be a four letter word and it appears that this is eminently true here in this novel. Two competing storylines set 100 years apart but in the same Washington State town, this is the tale of the Elwha River Dam's construction and 100 years on, about the drive to tear it down. The characters in the present day narrative are mainly descendants of the historical characters but all of them seem fairly cliched. There's the Native American who has visions; the early feminist, strident and brash; her idealistic lover turned capitalist; the lesbian park ranger environmentalist type; the ex-con awol from his parole officer; the off-kilter, possibly crazy, Bigfoot sighter; the forge-ahead-at-all-costs adventurer; the ironically moral prostitute; and the list goes on. The characters sometimes cross paths and other times are only fellow inhabitants of the muddy little pioneer town that simply grows into a more modern version of itself after the advent of the dam. Flipping back and forth in time just as the reader becomes accustomed to one time period, the juxtaposition of the other time period is jarring and breaks the flow of the novel.

With an enormous cast of characters and more than enough plotlines to accomodate all of them, the novel was definitely ambitious. Unfortunately the two disparate narratives never came together satisfactorily for me. Ultimately I was just relieved to be finished. The overwhelming hype surrounding the book didn't help but mainly by the end, I was too battered by the effort needed to get through the book to care much about it or any of the issues it should have raised. Others have found this to be a huge and wonderfully enveloping epic. I did not but may it be that way for you if you crack it open.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.


  1. Despite all of the positive reviews of this one, I confess it has little appeal to me. After reading an interview with the author when it came out, one of his answers turned me off this book. Unless it ends up on the National Book Award list, I'm passing on this one.

  2. I have heard a lot of good things about this book, but I am not so sure I want to read it myself.


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