Saturday, 9 July 2011

Bright’s Passage by Josh Ritter (4.5/5)

The back says: Josh Ritter’s first novel is a wondrous, suspenseful, and uniquely affecting story of the journey taken by a father and his infant son.

Henry Bright is newly returned to West Virginia from the battlefields of the First World War. Griefstruck by the death of his young wife and unsure of how to care for the infant son she left behind, Bright is soon confronted by the destruction of the only home he’s ever known. His hopes for safety rest with the angel who has followed him to Appalachia from the trenches of France and who promised to protect him and his son.

Together, Bright and his newborn, along with a cantankerous goat and the angel guiding them, make their way through a landscape ravaged by forest fire toward an uncertain salvation, haunted by the abiding nightmare of his experiences in the war and shadowed by his dead wife’s father, the Colonel, and his two brutal sons.

I say: I make no secret of the fact that I love Josh Ritter and consider him one of the greatest songwriters ever, so it was with part excitement and part apprehension that I started reading this – excitement because it’s Ritter, and apprehension because the synopsis above sounds nothing like what I usually enjoy reading.

But I’m nothing if not adventurous.

The narrative weaves between the present; in which Bright’s wife has just died in childbirth and is faced with his newborn and an angel, that is housed inside his horse (yes, really), telling him what to do, and flashbacks from his time before and during the war. I know that this sounds really absurd, which of course it is, but somehow Ritter makes it work. I am about to hand out an immense compliment here in saying that Ritter’s casual style of writing reminds me of Albert Camus (whom I, coincidentally, also love) in several places; and at others, it’s so distinctly Ritter it’s almost tangible.

One of the things that attracted me to Ritter’s music is his lyrical, dare I say, genius. He’s a prolific storyteller with an amazing way with words and haunting imagery.

But enough of my gushing.

Bright’s Passage was heartbreaking, funny, confusing and even a tad uncomfortable. Ritter did a great job of puzzling together the story and the characters, and even though there were a few instances where I thought it was going in a dreary direction, I quickly realised that I had underestimated everything that makes Ritter so great at what he does.

The ending was such perfection; I can’t even know what to say.

I would love to have been able to give this a full 5/5, but I must admit that there were a few instances of sentimentality and predictability towards the end that I didn’t quite like. There was nothing wrong with this, and it's actually quite beautiful, but it's just not what I like.

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