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February 22, 2005

Review: A World Away

A World Away

I read a fair amount of Stewart O'Nan. In fact, I think I've read all but one of his novels, and I intend to read that one as well. But after reading A World Away, I'm ready for a bit of a break.

I think that part of it is just how awash in World War II stuff I am right now -- we've been watching the most excellent Band of Brothers, and I finished off Call of Duty last month, and there's probably a handful of other movies I've also watched in the last year. It's a lot, and seeing yet another view of the conflict -- this time, mostly from the point of view of folks at home -- is just kind of war overload.

The story, such as it is, surrounds a family and how they are affected by the war. The father is a conscientious objector, and so was the elder son, until he lost a friend and signed up. The father was having an affair before, but he's not any more, but the mother has started having one, partly out of retaliation. The younger son is a bit confused by all of this, and he's trying to make do with the tools he has to comprehend everything -- his chapters are the best. They are living with the father's father, who is dying; the mother's grandfather died not so long ago.

The novel, which is very symmetric in its storylines, though often with symmetries displaced in time, moves from viewpoint to viewpoint of its major characters. We are the young boy, delivering papers and seeing a beautiful girl, seemingly for the first time¹. We are the old man, his body giving out. We are the young man in combat, doing his best to patch his soldiers back together out in the field. We are the mother, cheating on her husband, feeling like a woman again.

This form for the novel doesn't work for me -- it's too impressionistic. By the time I'm really vested in a character, I'm moved on to another. When something really interesting starts to happen, I move on to another viewpoint. While the form works to capture a kaleidoscope of a family's fears, concerns, and actions in war-time, it disassociates me from them too -- I'd rather spend time with just one than jump around like this.

So, I guess in the end, I have to recommend something else by O'Nan in place of A World Away. I loved A Prayer for the Dying and The Speed Queen. Read one of those instead.

** (out of four)

¹This is actually pretty touching -- I can remember being a boy just that age, seeing a girl in just that way for the first time. I think it just may be a near-universal experience for boys, though the gender of the target of affections may differ.

Posted by Brett Douville at February 22, 2005 08:28 PM