Monday, April 18, 2011

Book Review: The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak

  Coming from Bellevue Literary Press, the same small publisher that brought us last year's Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, Tinkers, is a tiny gem of a novel--The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak.  I hope that because of the publisher's track record that the book will get more review attention, because it certainly deserves it and, I suspect, would otherwise get overlooked.  Like Tinkers, it is a deceptively quiet novel filled with beautiful language and painstakingly crafted prose.  While I did not love it (I need to care more about my characters for that), I think it is a very fine novel. 

Jozef Vinich's life is marked by early tragedy when his father packs him up from the Americas and moves them both back to a small village in the Austro-Hungarian empire.  Life gets even more difficult with an unpleasant stepmother and a harsh, subsistence life life as a shepherd.  When he and his half brother enlist in World War I, little do they realize that their dream of escape from their impoverished rural life is about to become a nightmarish struggle for survival in the trenches.  Round that off with the life of a sniper who is then taken prisoner and you'd think it would all make for some pretty exciting reading, right?

Well, actually not.  It is a very deliberate book, holding the reader always at arm's length, and though the atrocities of war are not skimped on, it was hard for me to work up more than a vague horror at any given point, or for that matter, more than a vague relief when each unpleasant situation passed.  The writing is beautiful, but more in a clinically precise way; the level of passion implied by the action never quite reaches the writing.  This may sound like I'm damning The Sojourn with faint praise but that's not true.  Just because I find it to be reserved doesn't mean I do not admire it.  I do, in fact.  And when customers talk with me about wanting a book that is finely crafted, whose writing is precise (Krivak always finds his mot juste), I will unhesitatingly recommend it (like Cold Mountain, or Tinkers,or Fugitive Pieces, where the writing is also beautifully lyrical).

Here's a sample of the writing. Krivak frequently writes paragraph-long sentences, (think Jose Saramago among the modern greats) and while they make take a bit more effort to read, the effort is certainly rewarded:
The northwestern Carpathians, in which I was raised, were a hard place, as unforgiving as the people who lived there, but the Alpine landscape into which Zlee and I were sent that early winter seemed a glimpse of what the surface of the earth looked and felt and acted like when there were no maps or borders, no rifles or artillery, no men or wars to claim possession of land, and snow and rock alone parried in a match of millennial slowness so that time meant nothing, and death meant nothing, for what life there was gave in to the forces of nature surrounding and accepted its fate to play what role was handed down in the sidereal march of seasons capable of crushing in an instant what armies might--millennia later--be foolish enough to assemble on its heights. 
Lovely, no?  And when read with a deliberate pace, really considering what he is putting forth here, one finds ultimately that it is worth reading.  And worth the little extra effort.  And if  one comes away feeling less than fervent about the characters or the events and is moved more by the language itself, then so be it.

~Emily Crowe

1 comment:

As the Crowe Flies and Reads said...

Just wanted to comment how excited we are that The Sojourn has been shortlisted for the National Book Award!