I knew I was going to like this novel from the opening line (p3):
Every year, after Kip had blown the flames from his cake, their mom told the story of how he’d nearly killed her.
The question was, how much? Impressively, Hannah Kohler maintains this exquisite use of language right to the end. But beautiful writing can distract almost as much as sloppy writing and, at first, it seemed to distance me from the characters more than I would like. I was further thrown when a third point of view character, in addition to Jeannie and Kip, took up the story about two thirds of the way through. But I finally came to the conclusion that the psychic distance was an inevitable consequence of the multi-layered and complex (but never confusing) story that gripped me progressively more with each page.
The Outside Lands is a powerful debut about the human fallout of misguided meddling in faraway lands. It’s about loss and betrayal and attempts at reparation and, while I can’t claim my own writing matches Hannah Kohler’s standard, like my debut novel, Sugar and Snails, the impact of life-changing decisions taken by adolescent minds. As with Armadillos, this is a British novel taking on the voice of America with gusto. As with Everyone Brave, I’m looking forward to seeing how many literary prizes this compassionate war story will accrue.
After witnessing a colleague accidentally set fire to himself on a Las Vegas building site, thirty-something Nolan Jackson decides it’s time to move on. As a carpenter, he can find work anywhere and the caravan he’s lovingly refurbished is the only home he’s needed for thirteen years. Stopping off to visit his mother on the way to the coast, he learns of his elder brother’s fragility following his divorce and agrees to check up on him. When Nolan loses all his possessions in another tragic accident, he’s forced to stick around, bedding down in his brother’s garage and finding employment with a contractor stripping down and rebuilding a luxury home.
Like its protagonist, Journeyman is a quiet novel with unexpected depths about morality and modern masculinity. His need for control in a turbulent world is poignantly encompassed in the passage where he shows the reader around his trailer (p34):
He sits comfortably surrounded by his possessions. He knows they travel well and can be readily found when needed, for he’s arranged his belongings carefully. For nearly half his life Nolan’s worked to fashion order in the world. He’s cut and joined rock, metal, plastic, wire, and wood, and still mastery eludes him. Still it wills away, and what he works something into, chance and time undo elegantly and infinitely, beyond his ken of patience and perception, everything new commencing towards unravel and decay.
There’s a strong parallel between Nolan’s work and the potentially more challenging task of restoring the foundations of a meaningful life, one that doesn’t up sticks when things get tricky. The young man’s painful re-engagement with his emotions, exemplified in his hesitant phonecalls with the woman he left behind in Las Vegas, is contrasted with his brother’s more manic coping strategies, as well as the behaviour of the arsonist who “lights fires to clear out the understory so it can go roll back stronger” (p111), reminiscent of Sarah Butler’s novel Before the Fire. In reconnecting with his roots and with family, Nolan circles through his memories of his deceased father, a veteran of the Vietnam War, and of the traumatic event he witnessed alongside his brother at the tender age of seven. In the cohabitation of estranged brothers with very different ways of relating to the world, and explorations of the meaning of home, it reminded me of The Hilltop, a novel about the Israeli occupation.
With a lot going on for me when I read this novel, including noisy building work at the house next door, I might not have read it as closely as it deserved. If you’re interested in the themes of reparation, and what makes men tick, I think you’ll enjoy Journeyman. Thanks to Granta for my review copy.