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slow but wonderfully human
on September 21, 2003
The water in this book is in the form of a reservoir-not a river, not an ocean. That should warn the reader not to expect quick flowing action or "big" momentous events or epic characters. This is a quiet, slow-moving work and it deals in small eddies and ripples. The plot, such as it is, focuses on Brendan, a former monk dying of cancer who wants to see his boyhood home one more time before he dies, or at least, see what he can of it since most of it has been covered over by the reservoir which forced his mother and father (now dead, as are his brother and sister-in-law) off their land. At the start of this journey, we are introduced to the other surviving members of the clan, ranging in age from teens to middle-aged, all of whom are barely holding on to themselves, and are not doing much holding on to each other. All of them, for various reasons, undertake the same physical journey as Brendan and it gives nothing away to the reader to say they eventually all end up in the same spot.
The journeys are clearly more personal and metaphysical than geographical, as is where they end up, both when they all meet and later. Though there is nice, neat symmetry (and a bit of contrivance but since it's the only one we can give it to her) in getting all of them together, the book itself does not tie itself up anywhere near as neatly with regard to the characters or the plot. There are unintended consequences, surprising decisions (ones that surprise even those that make them), poor decisions, misunderstandings, revelations. A few of the characters are sketchy and one or two too easily drawn in broad, one-note strokes (though even these are given by the end a more full, if still cursory, interpretation) but none of the characters at any point ever acts like anything less than a real character and the family dynamics are never less than messy (in other words-also real).
What we see here are the after-effects: the after-effects of a community drowned for "progress", the after-effects of isolating oneself from family and the world entire, the after-effects of death (children brought up by grandparents when their own parents die in a car accident), of witnessing death en masse (several characters were involved in WWII) as well as intimately (one character acts as the caregiver for a dying family member), the after-effects of separation and absence. Some of it is clearly drawn for us, at other times we have to fill in the blanks, and sometimes the blanks are filled in for us but not until the end. It is a subtle work of metaphor and connections lightly but tightly drawn.
It is not a page-turner. It is slow. It is quiet. It is sad at times, funny at times, but always human, always real.