|The Guide by Peter Heller|
I have ten unfinished books on my night stand, and there is little chance that I will return to most of them (for various reasons). However, once I started reading The Guide, I had trouble putting it down (even though I'm hella busy right now and also sleep deprived).
The curious thing is that there are several aspects to the book that I didn't like.
Format: The author's chioce to write in paragraphs denoted by a space between instead of first line indentation. This is how I wrote the first draft of my first novel, and my understanding is that it is for online content instead of hard-copy. Normally I would see this as a flag for beginner, without an editor, but this author has published at least three novels and more non-fiction, so it is clearly a choice. It is distracting on pages with a lot of dialogue (where each speaker requires a new paragraph) because there is so little room for text, and I'm not sure what is the reason for the choice.
POV: It is about 99% in Jack's head, but on four or five occassions, it wanders to another character for a paragraph or two. I'm aware that the current, strong admonition against omniscient point of view is just a trend, but the extreme imbalance in this book seems amateurish. One of the arguments against using omniscient is that it can serve as only a device to transmit information to the reader that the protagonist doesn't have, but that didn't even seem to happen here. In this case, the only reason I could see to use it where the author did is to deepen the supporting characters but this wouldn't have been that hard to achieve by strictly using limited POV. It is an example where my critique group's advice would help: if you're going to go that route, introduce it early so the reader isn't thrown out half-way through, and put in more so it seems consistent, and certainly think about why you're doing it and if there's another way to achieve the same effect.
A major aspect that I was unsure about
The setting is a with-COVID world. (There's apparently not going to be a post-COVID world). It has been an interesting discussion with fellow writers how to deal with COVID in our novels. Any fictional world that doesn't include it seems false, but it is so fresh that no one really knows how it is going to affect our long-term future. This novel did a good job in having Jack don a face mask in the first few pages and mention the possibility of new variants, so I knew what world we were in. Given that it was published in Aug 2021, I can only imagine there were lots of last-minute edits to more truly align the fictional experience with the virus real-world experience. I can't even imagine the hubris required to write it, and I quite admire how well the author did with making it work.
So why did I keep reading?
It was a bit of a mystery to me during the act. Here's some guesses:
Throughout most of the book, I thought this was a negative aspect. It seemed like the mystery was going to have a really obvious conclusion. In the end, it was different, and tied well into another major aspect of the book. It seems in retrospect that the author was purposefully misdirecting me to think it was going to be the obvious answer, but since I was pretty convinced, it turned me off that it was heading an apparent cliché.
It seems this is actually a sequel to The River, which has now been spoiled for me (but since I enjoyed this enough, I probably will read it anyway). But there is a tragedy in that, and a tragedy early in Jack's life, that are tied in here, and I found them to be compelling "wounds" for the protagonist to recover from. The way they were healed in this book seemed a little forced, though.
The protagonist wasn't a hero, the relationship wasn't consummated
Not sure if this kept me reading but I liked how the characters could be attracted to each other without ending up in a relationship, and I liked how much the love interest was key to the final solution. I've recently realized how many books try to force their protagonist to go-it-alone because all we know about is the Hero's Journey (or atleast that's all I knew until I read The Heroine's Journey by Gail Carriger). This was a fresh change.
It's not really overly descriptive and flowerly although some of my critique partners might disagree. But there is a lot of emotionally evocative description of the natural world and the experience of fly fishing right in the middle of the action scenes. I can quote Anna Solomon's review of Ocean Vuong's writing "coaxing his readers to understand the weight of each moment with welcoming, fluid prose and imagery."
I think this served to slow down the action just enough, and definitely to get to know the character and set me deeply in the scene. It might not work so well for someone who isn't such a fan-girl of the natural world, but then Peter Heller himself expresses that those who grew up in cities appreciate nature more so maybe there's more readers who can identify!
My appreciation of this aspect leads me to think that the real reason I liked this book is that it really is my genre. The ARC quote on the front is "Peter Heller is the poet laureate of the literary thriller." I'm not writing thrillers (yet?) but I find myself straddling the literary/commecial divide. Sometimes I feel like that means I'm not doing either well but my hope is that the work I'm putting in will strengthen both and I can land in that sweet spot where the plot is moving and compelling, the characters are interesting and also the language is beautiful enough. While reading this, I felt tension between wanting to linger in the imagery and wanting to skim to find out what was going to happen, and I think this is my sweet spot. It is great to have an author that does this at the balance that I want, and definitely a reason for me to read more of him.