2011 at 5am Posted by Rebecca Joines Schinsky
Published February 2011 by Algonquin Books
Ambitious. Sprawling. Expansive. Remarkable. Inspired.
Dust off your thesauri, friends! Jonathan Evison’s West of Here is all of the above and then some. A big book in every sense of the word, Evison’s second novel has been the object of intense buzz since Book Expo America last May, and I am pleased to report that it more than lives up to the hype.
Straddling three centuries, West of Here depicts life in the (fictional) coastal Pacific town of Port Bonita, Washington. In 1890, dreamers are still moving west, explorers are still traversing undiscovered territory, and the American Dream is alive and well. The world is made of hope and possibility, and Manifest Destiny is not just a slogan but a way of life. Men of all professions meet at the local watering hole; whores befriend housewives; and one can get away with just about anything in the name of Progress.
Progress comes to Port Bonita in the form of a dam on the Elwha River, which by 2006 looks like nothing but a huge mistake that sounded like a good idea at the time. Industry has dried up. Hope is nearly exhausted. A town that once burned with excitement for expanding frontiers is now defined by its past. And lo, how the sins of the forefathers are visited on future generations!
But all is not lost. Evison populates Port Bonita with a huge—and colorful—cast of characters (white pioneers both rich and poor, Native Americans, Chinese immigrants, whores, suffragists, the list goes on) and manages their relations with masterful and seemingly effortless skill. These relationships are the heart and driving force of the novel, for just as much as West of Here is about the tension between past and present, progress and regret, it is about the ways in which our aspirations and the well-intended actions they inspire—the things we do in the name of creating a better life for our children and their children—often bring unintended and unforeseeable consequences that reverberate into the lives of people we are connected to but will never know.
And there’s a touch of the mystical, and a healthy dose of humor, and the kind of palpable connection between the past and present that history teachers spend lifetimes trying to capture and convey. West of Here is the opposite of a sophomore slump, and it represents marked development from Evison’s first novel All About Lulu (also worth reading). His writing has been carefully (and beautifully) edited and polished to a shine, and his talent is fully on display in this terrific new book that establishes him as an important voice in contemporary American fiction.
Guess it’s time to start shopping for those pioneer-themed panties!