Less tense than Cedars but deeper exploration of the soul,
This review is from: East of the Mountains (Paperback)
Hard to know how Guterson could match, let alone better, the novel for which he will always be known and admired - Snow Falling on Cedars. This sensibly does not try. This is no multi-layered thriller turning over the pages so fast that the prose and the setting almost flash by before you can absorb their richness. The journey of 70-something Ben Givens, retired cardiologist and widower and now terminal cancer patient, back to his rural roots where he intends to depart unobtrusively from life, is set out with crystal clear precision from the outset. There will be no breakthrough twist to a mind-stretching plot in a tense final quarter. Ben's preparations may be too meticulous to succeed - indeed they are initially too meticulous to convince as this neat, intelligent man plans a journey whose end can only intensify the pain which he is so anxious to spare his beloved daughter and grandson. We know that the plans must go awry but we (rightly) do not anticipate another roller-coaster sweep in the style of Snow Falling on Cedars.
Which leads in its gentler, less bravura way to a deeper and more moving outcome whose lessons sink in slowly and long after an altogether simpler and less dramatic closure. Things - utterly unintended - do indeed happen to Ben and his dogs on this last journey. But nothing really happens. Except that Ben's life story spills naturally and seamlessly into our consciousness and the landscape that has shaped it comes vividly to life with Guterson's trademark command of detail. The craft may appear over-wrought at times - the pin point precision of a Second World War field surgeon's last invasive resort to revive a soldier's dead heart comes to mind - but it never feels superfluous to the human tale or an irrelevant feat of pyrotechnics. The intensity of his love affair with the north-west American forests, rivers and mountains can also overwhelm. But they are the rock of Ben's life and values so that the endless descriptions play their part in revealing the man.
It took me at least fifty pages to connect with the self-absorption of this man (and who would not be self-absorbed in the aftershock of losing his lifetime's love and now close to losing his own life?) and it never compelled me onwards in the manner of its more illustrious predecessor. But it will stay longer and deeper with me - perhaps reflecting that I am almost fifteen years older than when I read Snow Falling on Cedars.