It seems like forever since I read a book, and that’s probably because it has been. The last book I finished was Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir, A Widow’s Story, oh, a month and a half ago. I’ve been frequenting the library like old times lately, and I picked up Jean Thompson’s The Year We Left Home. She’s written familiar books such as Do Not Deny Me and Throw Like a Girl. It was on display on the New Books table and because of it’s interesting cover (so sue me!), I picked it up. Don’t you love the lack of consequences when you impulse grab things at the library? Me too.
Thompson’s novel is structured by year and character. Throughout the novel, we travel to different parts of the country, getting good clues as to the political and economic climate of the country as well as the family that the novel chronicles. Thompson is strongest when she’s in the characters’ minds. Each section is written in third person limited, and the outcome is beautiful. Set in a rural farmtown in Iowa, the story starts out in 1973, mostly between Ryan and his cousin Chip, recently returned from Vietnam. Their exchange in Ryan’s truck, smoking weed, takes place as much in what Ryan doesn’t say as in what the two do say to one another. This introduction to both characters sets up an understanding of the family they come from that is essential to the novel.
My favorite part about the novel’s structure was the way it dipped in and out of each character’s life, showed us glimpses that we return to later in the book, decades later. The first half of the novel’s sections end cliffhanger style. There’s a build-up of suspense that creates a sort of sigh of relief sensation when you realize you’ve reached the half of the book that ties up those loose endings. But there is nothing particularly neat about Thompson’s ties. There are lives forever changed by tragedy that we get to see once the initial support of the community dies down and the family is left to fend for itself. We are not present for every character’s trajectory of growth, and so it seems that it’s the circumstances rather than the journey that Thompson wanted us to focus on. Once history begins, there is no changing it until you are on the other side of it, still alive.
I read this book in less than two weeks. It wasn’t too demanding as far as focus, so it’d make a good beach or commute read. Up next is Harold Bloom’s The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life. Guh, doesn’t the title just give you goosebumps?!