Someone once asked me what exactly I looked for in a book. It was a difficult question to answer because a book can have so many aspects I like and yet not end up liking it on the whole. At the time, I said that the story is one of the things that really matters to me. It should be compelling and different, and keep me glued even if the writing isn’t so good. But much later I realised that the other way round is possible too. I have read books where the writing is so arresting that I was not really affected by the story being average. Corran Harrington’s Follow the River Home is a mix of great writing and a good story that kept my attention snagged for the most parts. Many thanks to TLC Book Tours for giving me this book to review!
We follow Daniel, a “hydrogeological technician” and a Vietnam War veteran, as he remembers incidents from his past that continue to influence his present. His PTSD has driven a wedge between him and his wife Laura and he lives with a guilt that is not assuaged till the end of the book. But the damage is already done.
“Laura was tiring of him; he could feel it. There had been too many screams in the middle of too many nightmares; too many twisted sheets; too much sweat on the pillow. She couldn’t even muster the disappointment for him their daughter felt, or the disdain of their son.”
Yet, this is not a weepy tragedy of sorts where we see the ending coming a mile away. This is a story, or in fact stories, that slowly unravel like the river Rio Grande by which it is set. The book is divided into two halves with the Rio Grande forming the common artery. Moving back and forth in time, we initially listen to Daniel’s voice as he muses on his sorry present. Then, it slowly begins to widen to include other members of his family whose perspectives are interspersed with his. In the second half, we hear from these people as they tell their stories that sometimes converge on a single incident, mostly the death of Carmen, Daniel’s baby sister. The people comprise his neighbours, his friend Jeff’s family, and a man he had a fling with. But most interestingly, I enjoyed reading the imagined voices of objects like the mirror, a chest of drawers, and a bed, among other things, in Daniel’s house. I have wondered at times that if, not just walls, but objects in the room could talk what would they talk about. And I think Harrington has done a fine job of imagining that and giving words to them for me. Then there is Carmen. She speaks of her short-lived life and what actually happened that fateful day and I particularly liked listening to her six-month-old voice –
“I was just six months old, but that afternoon is vivid with details I could not yet have named. I knew the difference between my mother’s and father’s voices, though inflection remained visceral. My stomach tightened at raised tones, while my entire head felt warm when sung to.”
Doesn’t that make you go “aww?”
But as much as I enjoyed reading these stories, I felt a bit disoriented in terms of the direction the book was taking. I was lulled into a comfort zone with Daniel’s recounting of his life and then snap! Am jolted out of this zone into something, I felt, was totally unrelated. Harrington does not immediately identify the person who is speaking by their names, leaving it to the reader to figure out their relation to Daniel. And sometimes, this was just too confusing. While some were obvious like Carmen or Doug there are some that I couldn’t connect at all. Daniel appears in some but not in some others, making it seem all the more detached and isolated from the main story. The Keeper of Mortandad Canyon and My Fifteen Seconds of Flame for example.
The jarring transition is, however, more than made up for in the language. I loved the fluidity and acuity of writing that fills this book, making it such a nice read. Daniel’s emotions are palpably painful as he replays the day Carmen died, over and over. Doug’s life, the big mismatch between the personal and the public, is hauntingly vivid. After a while, I stopped trying to connect the stories to Daniel and just read them for what they are. A tender and gentle read is what they are, just like the rest of the book.
Verdict: A lovely debut book from a writer with great potential
Note: Image courtesy Arbor Farm Press