Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The Mountain Can Wait, by Sarah Leipciger

Tom Berry is a stoic and dependable man- a man that can kill an adult buck and butcher it in the field and fix pretty much anything without even having to think about it. He's a mountain man through and through and lives immersed and in awe of nature. Tom spends half of his year running a small planting outfit in the remote Canadian logging forests, a rag-tag bunch of gap year types, oddballs and drifters. The other half he spends with his his family- a fairly low maintenance daughter, Erin in her early teens and Curtis, a misfit on the brink of adulthood with a few bad habits and a self destructive streak. The reader gets the impression (as do his kids) that domestic Tom is a badly fitting disguise, compared to the more comfortable loner wilderness man. Raising them as a single father Tom has always done his best. He's proud of their quiet independence and fortitude, qualities that he has imparted on them. He's ever watchful for signs of darkness and depression in his daughter, for the illnesses which drove his wife to her desertion and ultimately to her death.

A good and wholesome man, Tom channels the quiet, fatherly patience of Atticus Finch for the early part of the book. He lets his children make mistakes (and makes them himself), comfortable in the knowledge that they will learn from them. Until the incident where it's an irreversible, life-destroying mistake that can never be undone. The plot begins with a fatal accident, a hit and run on a dark mountainside. When he learns of this accident (news is slow and sparse in the wilderness) Tom must leave his forestry outfit early and seek out his missing son. As he does so, the backstory of his family is filled in- the struggles and hardships that he's endured for the sake of his family, the difficulties of single fatherhood. A family he never really wanted, but cannot imagine life without now- he loves them fiercely, despite the emotional distance he maintains. The effects of the accident have effects for both Tom and Curtis, raking up some buried ghosts of the past and unexpectedly helping both men to understand each other better. Long-held grudges and misplaced bitterness are brought out into the light and addressed at last.

I loved the sense of place that was so beautifully and so thoroughly painted in this novel. Leipciger's prose is so sensory and evocative, it really is quite stunning. Her style of writing is quite unusual- breathlessly intense in places and gentle and subtle in others. The reader feels almost telepathic, picking up forest smells and sounds that can't possibly be in the text. The mind-bendingly immense wilderness of Canada is almost unimaginable to someone from the UK. This distance between outposts of civilisation, the isolation and just the sheer amount of nothing just doesn't compute. 

The Mountain Can Wait is a small and self contained novel about family duty, very personal conflicts and the delicate and inexplicable dynamics of complicated families. It's not a fast paced book, but it's gripping and it takes its time to build and define its characters.  Their personalities, pain and confusion pour out of the pages in a way that is captivating and immersive.Though it has a small cast, it is a vivid and detailed one, full of confusion, love and choices. The personalities are strong, whole and relatable and the reader feels truly invested in the lives of the Berries. Despite its modest plot, the climax is both emotional and inevitable, we see it coming, but there is nothing that can be done to change it.

It's a beautifully crafted novel that really takes the time to shape and study its characters, examining every choice that they have made to find themselves at their present hardship. It's an intimate story that fills the reader's senses with woodland scents and light, and conveys the trauma and struggles of its characters in beautiful and heartbreaking detail. Definitely an author to keep an eye on.

Thanks to Tinder Press and Headline for the review copy.

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