Chris Bohjalian is an odd writer. You wouldn’t think that, I’d wager, after reading any one of his novels. His books aren’t odd in the sense that any single one of them is strangely constructed or full of bizarre prose or anything like that. As a matter of fact, his books aren’t odd at all. What’s odd about him is the shape of his body of work. I’ve read a good handful of Bohjalian’s novels now and, read blind, I probably wouldn’t have guessed that they were all by the same author. The subject matter, tone and themes of his books seem to extend only the distance between back and front cover. One book might be a contemporary legal thriller about a young girl’s coming of age, and another a World War II story about a German family struggling across their war-torn homeland. They also vary a great deal in quality. I’ve read good ones, bad ones, okay ones and terrible ones. And now I’ve read the new one.
The only trouble is, I read the book a couple weeks ago now, and I can’t even remember the dang title of the thing. I suppose that says about as much as any review could. I can say, however, that this book took Bohjalian’s diversity and unpredictability to new highs, in that it actually seemed to be made up of several stories spanning multiple genres. It’s a mash up of serial killer thriller, wide-screen war time epic, police procedural and family drama, and it doesn’t really work all that well.
The story skips about from POV to POV, skittering frantically from past to present, sometimes switching from third to first person. It’s just too much, there are too many character and too many meandering pointless subplots and twist. None of it comes out feeling complete or part of a whole. There are individual scenes that work, but none of it fits into a larger context. It also did this weird thing were we’d have a character remembering a past event, and then in a later scene set in an earlier time, we see the same event again, only in real time. It might have been interesting if revisiting these scenes had revealed something more about them, but all to often they feel like simple repeats. I didn’t care about most of the POV characters, and by the time we arrived at the final clutch of twist endings all piled up like a car crash at the end of the book, I just didn’t care. None of it really landed. I was left with an overwhelming feeling of ambivalence. Just a big fat muh.
Oh, now I remember! A Light in the Ruins, that was it! Yep, that’s the title alright. So…
I didn’t hate the book, and I certainly didn’t love it. It was quick moving and engaging and reasonably well-written, so it went right by easy enough. That’s not much of a recommendation, but you could do worse. You could be reading Secrets of Eden.