Friday, 7 April 2017

Book Thoughts: 'Sufficient Grace' by Amy Espeseth


Overall rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Ruth and her cousin Naomi live in rural Wisconsin, part of an isolated religious community. The girls’ lives are ruled by the rhythms of nature — the harsh winters, the hunting seasons, the harvesting of crops — and by their families’ beliefs. Beneath the surface of this closed, frozen world, hidden dangers lurk.

Then Ruth learns that Naomi harbours a terrible secret. She searches for solace in the mysteries of the natural world: broken fawns, migrating birds, and the strange fish deep beneath the ice. Can the girls’ prayers for deliverance be answered?


Why I bought it:  After missing out on the first Moth Box last year, I made sure that I was quicker off the mark when the January box was released.  This was one of two books included in the beautiful box, wrapped up in tissue paper and tucked up with a branded bookmark in plenty of fun packaging.  The boxes are stunning and both books looked fabulous so if you haven't yet tried acquiring two randomly selected, independently published books through this service, I'd really recommend you do (once I've had an opportunity to make sure I get myself one, obviously…).

Why I picked it up: When I bought the January box, I told myself that I couldn't then buy the March one unless I'd read at least one of the January books. Out of the two in the box, I went for this one because the cover is stunning and it looked appropriately wintery.  And walking away from a blurb that promises "a story of lost innocence and the unfailing bond between two young women" that is "at once devastating and beautiful, and ultimately transcendent" is no mean feat.

Mid-point musings:  I tend to lean towards plot-driven novels but the writing in Sufficient Grace reminds me of how wonderful it can be to just read about a different type of life or a different environment.  I don't know how this book manages to feel both so free and so oppressive at the same time.  There's something about a life without the pressures of modern life that in some way seems quite appealing but the weight of living in such close confines with such a small number of people feels unbearable.  It's a skillful writer that can convey that balance so effectively.  I hope that I'm wrong about what's going on.

Mid-point rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Final thoughts:  

It's hard not to write about Sufficient Grace in a way that isn't full of clichés.  I could wheel out all sorts of over-used phrases about how raw and visceral the writing is.  About how Espeseth has taken a harsh environment and used it to highlight the trials her characters endure.  The annoying thing is, they'd all be true.  The writing in this book is absolutely stunning.  I can't remember having read another book that gave me such a clear picture of the world characters were living in.  It's harsh and unrelenting, describing a community that relies on nature and hunting to survive, that is so dependent on the environment and familiar with death in a way that modern communities avoid being. It doesn't always make for easy reading (and the opening in particular might be one that'll turn a few to vegetarianism) but it had a huge impact on me whenever I was reading and it haunts me months later. 

So come for the writing, stay for the heartbreaking story.  The story follows Ruth telling her of life among her family in an isolated rural community.  The author's acknowledgements include an apology to any of her former isolated religious community that she might have offended in writing this novel.  Ruth's story is Amy's story, after a fashion, and it's the ring of truth that makes this novel so powerful.  The way that Ruth uses religious stories and allegories to rationalise some of the terrible things that happen to her was painful to read about.  Adult readers will understand more about what's happening to Ruth than Ruth does herself but Espeseth never overplays it.  She writes subtly and gives Ruth a voice that has just the right amount of naivety.  I wasn't wrong about what was going on and the way that it plays out is just...devastating.  In a quiet, suppressed way.

This is a little known novel it would seem but it's absolutely worth hunting down.

Favourite quotes:
"Reuben is pretending he wasn't ever scared, that he hasn't already been picturing himself slipping through the ice: sinking down, down, down into the freezing deep, his eyes peering up through the frosted water, trying to find the hole out that was his hole in"
 
"He is finished.  And now I know what I had hoped against: he is all he is, and he is not enough" [Page 251]
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Date finished:  15 February 2017
Format: Paperback
Source: Bought via Moth Box Books
Genre: Literary fiction
Pictured Edition Published: in August 2012 by Scribe Publications

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