When I first started as a bookseller, I would throw quotes indiscriminately and with reckless abandon at every book which came my way.
I think this is a pretty typical urge – publish or perish, they tell you, and reviewing books via the Sir Edmund Hillary method (“because they are there”) is a good way to publish frequently.
But those days are behind me now. Which makes what I am about to tell you pretty important.
There are two novels which were released in the past month which I love. In fact, I consider each to be a masterpiece. I do not use that word lightly.
Both are by authors from North America, both are dark and yet ultimately somewhat hopeful, and both of them ripped big jagged holes right through me and have left me, weeks after finishing them, still turning their themes and characters over in my head.
The Orenda is, ultimately, a historical novel, set in what is now Ontario in the early 18th century and following a trio of voices which cross both cultural and generational boundaries. The Painter is a contemporary story, told through the eyes of Jim Stegner, an expressionist painter with a violent, checkered past. In many ways, these novels could not be more different. Why am I discussing them together?
The summer I graduated from high school, some friends of mine compiled a list of “universal truths.” While some of their suggestions – cake always brings people together, for instance – were decidedly lighthearted, the concept of universal truths and the idea that there are certain realities everyone everywhere must eventually face has always stuck with me.
What makes both The Orenda and The Painter such powerful works is that each one addresses universal truths in unexpected and moving ways.
The Orenda is a novel of faith and belonging. Its central characters are constantly put in positions where they must question their belief and their place. It is also a tale of fruitless revenge – a seemingly endless cycle of retribution and violence drives many of the characters – and of human perseverance, of the will to carry on in the face of utter devastation.
I bet you've heard some stories described like this before. I bet you've read stories like this before. But you have not read this one.
Boyden's novel is a first-contact story, rich in the tradition and folklore of the Huron people. But its universality comes from the ways in which it speaks to every culture everywhere, to every person who has ever lived or ever will. He describes the tragic collision between two cultures – the First-Nations tribes of the northeast and the European missionaries sent to “save” them – in exacting detail. But he's also telling a tale that will sound familiar to anyone who has lost something they took for granted, or for any group that has found their ways of life threatened by someone who claimed to be a friend. Boyden's writing is incredibly evocative of the time, place and culture he is describing, but the themes of The Orenda are not particular to the 18th century, or to the tribes of the Great Lakes. They transcend time and place so completely that you feel the characters' triumphs and losses as though they were your own – and maybe, just maybe, that's because they are.
The Painter could be called a revenge story, except that the crime which starts it off is not really a personal one. Jim, on his way to his favorite fishing spot, encounters a man beating a horse (Dostoevsky and Nietzsche fans will probably enjoy the nod). Jim doesn't know the man, but is so overcome with rage that he returns later that night and kills him, setting in motion a series of events that will profoundly alter his life.
This may not feel like a universal experience, but if you think about it, the parallels between Jim's story and your own might surprise you. Have you ever had a feeling of anger or jealousy that you just couldn't shake? Have you ever found yourself unable to escape your past, either with others or with yourself? In The Painter, Peter Heller illustrates these experiences eloquently and with dead-on accuracy. He also refuses to let the pace of the story slow, and the result is that The Painter becomes something of a quasi-spiritual-rural-literary thriller, a book that's hard to put down.
Both Boyden and Heller are masters of setting – whether it's downtown Taos or a devastated Wendat village, each captures the essence of the physical place they are writing about in a way that feels downright magical. But each of their novels touches on experiences which, in a broad sense, could happen anywhere, to anyone. With subtlety and grace, each of these novels explore universal truths.
I'm a big believer in words. I think they hold incredible power. But after all those books I've reviewed, I find myself feeling like my few words cannot do The Orenda or The Painter any sort of justice. And maybe that's the point. Maybe that's what makes each of these novels carry the massive weight that they do. Perhaps there's something so big and true and universal and indescribably human about each story that, try as I might, I'll never be able to really tell you about it. Perhaps it's not something that can be captured and squeezed into a blurb.
Perhaps I can't really tell you about The Orenda or The Painter after all. Perhaps you'll just have to read them.