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Sweet Hereafter: A Novel Paperback – November 25, 1997

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Editorial Reviews Review

Atom Egoyan's Oscar-nominated The Sweet Hereafter is a good movie, remarkably faithful to the spirit of Russell Banks's novel of the same name, but Banks's book is twice as good. With the cool logic of accreting snowflakes, his prose builds a world--a small U.S. town near Canada--and peoples it with four vivid, sensitive souls linked by a school-bus tragedy: the bus driver; the widowed Vietnam vet who was driving behind the bus, waving at his kids, when it went off the road; the perpetually peeved negligence lawyer who tries to shape the victims' heartaches into a winning case; and the beauty-queen cheerleader crippled by the crash, whose testimony will determine everyone's fate.

We experience the story from inside the heads of the four characters in turn--each knowing things the others don't, each misunderstanding the facts in his or her own way. The method resembles Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and Gilbert Sorrentino's stunning Aberration of Starlight, but Banks's achievement is most comparable to John Updike's tales of ordinary small-towners preternaturally gifted with slangy eloquence, psychological insights, and alertness to life's tiniest details.

Egoyan's film is haunting but vague--it leaves viewers in the dark regarding several critical plot points. Banks's book is more haunting still, and precise, making every revelation count, with a finale far superior to that of the film. It's also wittier than the too-sober flick: the lawyer dismisses the dome-dwelling hippie parents of one of the crash victims as being "lost in their Zen Little Indians fantasy," which casts a sharp light on them and him, too. He's lost in his calculations of how each parent will fit into the legal system, and the ways in which he fits into the tragedy are lost on him. If only he and the Vietnam-vet dad could read each other's account of their tense first encounter, both of them might get what the other is missing.

Banks's wit is pitiless--it's painful when we discover that the bus driver, who prides herself on interpreting for her stroke-impaired husband, is translating his wise but garbled observations all wrong. The crash turns out not to be the ultimate tragedy: in the cold northern light of its aftermath, we discover that we're all in this alone.

From Publishers Weekly

Banks employs a series of narrators to present a powerful account of an Adirondack community riven by a bus accident that claims 14 children. A Literary Guild alternate in cloth.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 257 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (November 25, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060923245
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060923242
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (163 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #143,218 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Russell Banks is the author of sixteen works of fiction, many of which depict seismic events in US history, such as the fictionalized journey of John Brown in Cloudsplitter. His work has been translated into twenty languages and has received numerous international prizes, and two of his novels-The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction-have been made into award-winning films. His forthcoming novel, The Reserve, will be published in early 2008. President of the International Parliament of Writers and former New York State Author, Banks lives in upstate New York.

Customer Reviews

This was a very well written book.
All in all, I thought this was a good book, a good discussion and I'm glad I had the chance to read it.
Mel's Reviews
The characters in this book are drawn so well you feel as though you can see them.
michigan jean

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

28 of 29 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 19, 1998
Format: Paperback
The Sweet Hereafter is a compelling novel of a small town in America that has to overcome a devasating tragedy.
The novel is written from the perspective of four completely different narrators which is what makes the story so interesting. The way Russel Banks portrays each character can make even the most insensitive reader identify with them. The language he uses can make you almost hear the character speaking and makes them seem more realistic. A reader from any cultural background can read this book and get the feeling of a small town in America and sympathize with the characters in it. The novel is written so well that every point of view can be clearly seen even when the characters are expressing some of their negative attributes.
The way the people deal with the accident is what is so compelling because their lives can be altered in a positive or very negative way depending on how they deal with the influx of big city lawyers and media.This novel gives you an in depth look at how ordinary people deal with pain and loss. We see how certain relationships deteriorate and others develop after the tragedy. The way they see each other and the way the reader sees the characters will change drastically from beginning to end.
There are themes in this novel for everyone from secret affairs, loss of loved ones, alcoholism, selfishness, divorce and the need to blame others are just a few. Anyone can get involved in this book and will most probably see some aspects of their own lives in it.
The outcome of the novel was pleasantly surprising but it is inevitable to have a slight feeling of sadness for some of the characters. It is very realistic but not at all dull, everyone has to read this book!
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79 of 96 people found the following review helpful By M. Isaacs on November 20, 1999
Format: Paperback
I know this space is usually reserved strictly for a review of the book, but since Amazon's review of "The Sweet Hereafter" makes many references to the clear superiority of the novel over the film, I feel obliged to briefly respond. And to passionately disagree.

The movie is not merely good; it is an outright masterpiece.

Banks' novel is strong and insightful on so many different levels, and I would have thought, by the very nature of its structure, that it would have been virtually impossible to bring to the screen. But Atom Egoyan has been able to write and film one of the most intensely intelligent screen adaptations I have ever seen. And Amazon's review about it completely misses the bus.

Banks brings to life his remote and icy small town clearly and realistically, and there is not a false note in his portrait of his characters or the isolated world they inhabit. Although we hear four different narrators throughout the story, the book always seems to be viewing its devastated people in Sam Dent from high above, as if they are under a microscope in their struggles to survive the worst that life offers.

Whereas Banks uses literary skills to reflect on his larger themes, Egoyan uses the breathtaking skill of his filmmaking to come up with a comparable work. "The Sweet Hereafter" is one of the great films of the '90s; like the book, it is not about death but about surviving the incomprehensible death of those closest to you.

Egoyan manipulates time in his film -- not as a gimmick but for similar purposes that Banks chooses various narrators to see some of the same events from different perspectives.
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22 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Brooke Dolara on February 11, 2002
Format: Paperback
I was perusing the reviews of this book earlier, and I have to agree that this book is one of Russell Banks' most haunting, despondent, and beautiful pieces of prose. The Sweet Hereafter chronicles the story of four individuals who are struggling with the aftermath of a horrific school bus accident, resulting in the deaths of many schoolchildren riding that morning. The book uses four different narrators; there is Delores, the once tough but eternally optimistic driver who now is consumed by guilt. Another voice is Billy Ansel, the ruggedly handsome widower who witnesses the accident from his truck. With the death of his twin son and daughter, Ansel becomes grief-stricken and shuts out any possibility of redemption, offerd in the form of a personal injury lawyer, who placed blame on the town and offers promise of financial reparitions. The lawyer is Mitchell Stephens, who also is reeling from the "death" of a child; his daughter has disappeared into a lifestyle of drugs and detox centers. The fourth and perhaps most intriguing voice is Nicole Burnell, a former cheerleader now paralyzed by the accident. She is a crucial witness for Stephens, and her surprising actions reveal ambiguous motives. I can't really reveal too much more about her, but she is the most interesting character in the book, in part because it is never clear why she does what she does. The book also has a heatwrenching epilogue, demonstating that, in a story like this, there can be no neat sense of closure. Rather, the devastation of survival plagues and haunts each member of the community, and time does not heal suffering, but rather prolongs it.
Another reviewwer commented that the book was light on dialogue. Indeed, it is.
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