Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Book Review: THE HOMECOMING OF SAMUEL LAKE, by Jenny Wingfield

The Homecoming of Samuel Lake: A Novel

The Homecoming of Samuel Lake: A Novel by Jenny Wingfield

Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Random House (July 12, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0385344082
ISBN-13: 978-0385344081

This review courtesy of

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are books that scream their business at you. Others that throttle you until you give them the attention they so desperately seek, as if to say, "Look at me! Look at me! Pick me up and read me!"

Jenny Wingfield's debut is not one of those books.

Instead, it quietly finds its place in your heart, some tiny little cubbyhole where it can rest. It is one of those books that ever so gently makes itself known to you, and then hangs unobtrusively around, and so becomes a part of your existence. It's tricky that way.

And that's what's so sexy about it: it seduces.

Don't get me wrong. The first line fairly rips your breath away: "John Moses couldn't have chosen a worse day, or a worse way to die, if he'd planned it for a lifetime." But, see, that's the beauty of even that: the book isn't really about John Moses. It isn't even about the eponymous minister, Sam Lake. Not really. It's mostly about defrocked Sam's daughter, Swan (yes, her name is Swan Lake). Not to mention a whole slew of other characters.

See what I mean? Tricky.

The story follows a similarly indirect route to its conclusion. A family reunion turns tragic when the patriarch shoots himself, which lends itself to son-in-law Sam's return to the Moses home, along with his wife and children. Minister Sam, a good man who can't help but butt heads with his superiors, has had his congregation taken from him. The goodness in his heart extends to the thoughts and actions of his family, including Swan, who has her own weaknesses. An abusive neighbor plays a part, as does a police officer who, like his name, is always early. Early harbors a secret about Swan's uncle, Toy. Let's just say it involves a murder. The story, almost epic in scope, at times feels a bit like Gabriel García Márquez' ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, though certainly on a much smaller scale. Perhaps it's because the cast of characters flow in and out of the story, and the stoylines themselves weave from the background to the fore in intricate ways. Some readers might find this disturbing, but to me it felt genuine.

Wingfield's writing, though not perfect, is overall superb. My favorite line comes in chapter 7, when she describes the stoic Toy from the viewpoint of his unfaithful wife Bernice: "Poor Toy. He couldn't see straight. But when a person loves you so much that he asks for nothing in return, it's only to be expected that that's about what he gets. It's like a Law of Nature." The description gives us as much insight on Bernice as it does Toy.

I did find getting attached to any one character difficult, as many characters had a tendency to appear on stage, snatch the spotlight for a brief moment, then disappear until a later scene change. Because of this, the story felt a bit episodic, which is why I'm giving it 4 instead of 5 stars.

There are also a few minor considerations, which I attribute to this being a first novel. For example, Wingfield gives some of her characters whimsical names: Blade, Toy, Early, Swan. I thought it was a bit self-indulgent, though it didn't detract from the reading, once I got used to them. My only other complaint about the writing itself is her overuse of repetitive words and phrases, as if she lacked the confidence to make her point the first time. It might not have mattered as much if the story were told from a single point of view, rather than the limited alternating 3rd person. Details such as these have a tendency to blend characters' voices together. I mostly noticed this in the first third of the book; whether that means I got used to it later or it was less prevalent afterwards, I can only guess. Otherwise, the writing is both as elegant and utilitarian as necessary, no more, no less.

I do also have to comment on the editing, which I thought could have been tightened up a bit. My biggest complaint is the overuse and misplacement of commas in some places (including the very first sentence!), though this tended to be found only in isolated clusters. Even so, it gave the reading a stilted feel in those sections. Also, I found several instances in which elipses and em-dashes were used in place of one another. I fault the copy-editor for this, which is why I didn't ding the book itself.

The story does contain a few disturbing themes: animal abuse, child and spouse abuse, suicide and murder, alcohol abuse, infidelity. So, though the main character is Swan, this is not a children's book. It doesn't sell itself as such, but I thought I'd make that point. However, like Leif Enger's PEACE LIKE A RIVER, whose main character is a child, I think this has strong crossover potential into the young adult market.

In summary, an excellent debut with very good, though not perfect, writing. The story tends to wend a bit, but it all feels honest and, ultimately, full of hope.

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