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When questions provide answers
on 16 May 2004
David Guterson is a man who rather asks questions than give the answers. In his third novel to-date, Our Lady of the Forest, he asks you to believe or not to believe. Or maybe he does not even go that far: he just urges the reader to consider the options, to look at it from both sides.
Ann Holmes, a teenage girl with a childhood of neglect and sexual abuse, tries to make a living by picking mushrooms in a gloomy Washington forest near Tacoma. One day she has a vision of the Holy Virgin who urges her to build a church in the woods, and within days her initial solitary experience - after a second and a third vision of Mary - swells to near mass-hysteria, spread by the internet.
Her cynical "friend" Carolyn tries to financially exploit these visions of Ann. The young priest of the isolated and derelict community is troubled more by Ann herself than by her experiences. Young guilt-ridden, unemployed and divorced-with-a-restraining-order Tom Cross sees in Ann a ray of hope to overturn his own desperate situation.
Guterson observes and describes these people's lives with accuracy and precision. He looks at events from different points of view, it is up to the reader to draw the overall picture - if that exists at all. There is humor and tragedy, compassion and cynicism. The bulk of the book spans a mere four days in November, but you feel like you know these people intimately. Likewise for the description of nature and the often absurd scenes that take place, the reader is not a bystander but feels he's taking part in it rather than just watching it.
Guterson does not write fast-food literature, but for those willing to take their time, slow down and question received truths, this book is great food for thought.