Sunday, August 30, 2015

Review: Lost Canyon by Nina Revoyr

Nature has many faces. It can be peaceful and restorative. It can be forbidding and formidable. Or it can be anything in between these two extremes. In our mostly urban suburban society, we don't often find ourselves in untouched nature. We have to make the effort to leave our cities and towns and find the wilderness for ourselves. But being out in nature does not always go as planned, and it is not always as untouched and safe as we think, as the characters in Nina Revoyr's novel Lost Canyon discovered.

Intense LA fitness instructor Tracy plans to lead a challenging backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Three of her most dedicated students choose to join her on the trek. Each of them has a different reason for wanting this short retreat into the wild where they anticipate pushing themselves and perhaps finding answers to some of the questions in their lives. Gwen is an African American woman who works with under-served kids in Watts. She is haunted by the recent death of one of her students, a likable young man who was incredibly promising. Of the three of Tracy's students, she is probably the least fit and she worries that the whole trip might be beyond her physically. Oscar is a single father, Latino real estate agent who rode the real estate wave to major success but didn't get out before the wave came crashing down.  Now he's likely to lose his shirt.  He helped to gentrify the area in which he lives, only now questioning the wisdom and community-wide impact of doing that. Todd is a successful lawyer, the privileged white male of the bunch. His wife comes from money and he struggles to find happiness in the lifestyle she demands, feeling alienated not only from her but from his own children as well. Tracy will push all three of these very different people to the edge physically but they will all be pushed to the edge mentally as well.

When the quartet first meet, they form snap first impressions, based on their own superficial and preconceived ideas of race and class, their discomfort with each others' differences very evident. Each person in this disparate group is uncertain about venturing into the wilderness for a weekend with people so unlike each of them. But each also decides that it is for the short term and on a well traveled trail so they tuck away their misgivings and head off together. An encounter at a small store just before the park only serves to highlight the differences amongst the group, with some catching the uncomfortable racist undertones of the conversation and others missing it entirely. Once inside the park they are dismayed to discover that the route Tracy had planned for them is closed because of fires. A bit daunted, they eventually agree to an un-maintained, un-patrolled, and remote route that is only found on an old handwritten map of the park. They are perhaps seduced by Tracy's reckless overconfidence and a blind faith that she will not lead them into danger and so they head out.

The first part of the book introduces each of the characters, establishing their unique and differing back stories. The character exposition is slow but necessary in forming full pictures of each person and what led them to this life-altering trip. The narration alternates its focus on Gwen, Oscar, and Todd, leaving only Tracy to remain an enigma. Starting as a tale of people looking for something inside themselves in nature, the story quickly changes course. The tension escalates; suspense, a rising sense of uneasiness, and, finally, terror pervade the tale as the characters stumble into a frightening situation where they are not wanted. It is when the novel becomes a desperate tale of survival that each of the characters becomes fully realized and well rounded. As they find the reserves of strength within themselves, they also acknowledge fortitude in their fellows. Revoyr's decision to place her characters in the wilderness where they are forced to rely on each other and work together to escape an adventure that is suddenly life or death is a surprisingly successful way in which to address issues of racism and classism in unusual visceral and immediate ways. The ending is a bit abrupt and the symbolism of the unsolved mystery remained unclear to me but overall, this is a thrilling read which offers a hopeful pocket of humanity that survives and triumphs over both arduous and challenging natural conditions and the worst that human beings can throw at each other.

Thanks to the publisher and LibraryThing Early readers for sending me a copy of the book for review.

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