Sunday, July 12, 2020

The Sweet Hereafter

One of my favorite styles of storytelling, maybe my favorite, is the use of multiple unreliable narrators. I love the uncertainty this creates as the reader has to tease out why the various narrators might frame things the way they do. That was not entirely what I expected when I read this (though an acquaintance in a book group did mention the multiple narrators long enough ago that I’d forgotten); I picked up a used copy when I saw this on a list of recommended rural noir. This does have a rural setting, but it’s more a meditation on grief and its effects on communities than noir.

It’s a sad book. It starts with a bus wreck that kills 14 kids. The first (and last) narrator is the bus driver. The second is a father of twins who died in the wreck. The next is an out of town lawyer who tries to gin up a class action lawsuit. Before the bus driver wraps up the novel, there’s a section by one of the kids who survived but was paralyzed. I want to avoid spoilers, so I won’t talk much more about the plot.* Despite the unreliability of the narrators, by piecing their stories together, the reader is able to get a good enough view of what actually happens. Banks understands that motives are complicated; it’s implicit in the structure of the book, but the second narrator says it outright, "Who knows now? Fixing motives is like fixing blame--- the further away from the act you get, the harder it is to single out one thing as having caused it." That blame forms one of the strands of the ethical problems explored in the book.

But the overwhelming mood of the book is sad rumination on loss and the effects of grief on a community. I read the book in a couple of sittings on a day off, and for the first time I read an entire book and watched the adaptation on the same day. By expanding the role of the lawyer and adding a throughline of a reference to the Pied Piper fairy tale, the movie manages to capture the sadness of the book, though it loses the Rashomon quality that the multiple narrators gave. This is a very good, very sad book, and I will probably seek out more of Banks’ work.

Highly Recommended

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 47/75

*Except to say that it does deal with incest in one of the sections, so know that going in.

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