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65 of 76 people found the following review helpful
Light in Substance
on December 22, 2005
I still find it difficult to believe that all of the most respected literary critics could be so wrong, but here I am, done with the book, and there is no doubt about it -- this is not at all the literary heavyweight that they had said it was.
Guterson's writing is elegant, I'll concede that -- but the book was more useful to me as a travelogue, taking me through the various seasons and forests/fields of a Northwestern island, than as a book of "truth". The treatment of racism in the book was incredibly superficial, as many readers have echoed. The Asian characters (I am Asian) were so stereotypical, particularly Hatsue with her outward tranquility and inward implacability (which dissolves inexplicably somewhere 2/3 through the book), Kabuo the incommunicable but virile man, wronged but wordless, of course, always wordless. All the Asians -- so silent and serious, no laughter, few tears, so resigned, and always faintly grieving. All of them, foreign and incomprehensible shadows. Ghosts, really. Guterson did such a poor job on Hatsue particuarly -- if he had gotten her right, the rest could've been dismissed as intentional ambiguity, but he didn't. It's almost tragic sometimes how uninspired his portraits of Hatsue are -- the endless descriptions of her exotic black hair, her serenity of movement, her beauty so imperturable and so still she could've been dead, or perhaps, she was. After the first half of the book, the woman didn't think anymore. She was just as inscrutable as her husband. And what's the point of reading about characters who are inscrutable, particularly when you have the nagging suspicion that they weren't just playing coy with you, playing at being an enigma, but that they were truly devoid of feeling, devoid of thought?
The book's most memorable character is the island itself. Secondarily, the character of Ishmael, who, pathetic as he is, is passably-rendered. The ending came far too quickly given the initial pacing of the book, and resolved nothing. For me, the "truths" that were supposed to emerge never came -- instead, they missed the cedars, melted into the snow, and never took shape.