Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Believers by Travis Gulbrandson - Review

I saw this book offered in the members giveaway section of LibraryThing and I was immeadiately drawn to the cover - a black and white image of a man that has been partially obscured from view by white scratches on the photograph. The image was haunting and piqued my interest to such an extent that I requested a chance to read a copy before I even knew what the plot was. The photo is slightly frightening. You are looking through a haze and you don't quite know what the scratches may be hiding. Is there a sinister smirk at the corner of the young man in the picture's lip? I really loved it the image and would definitely pluck it off the shelf in a bookstore. It also is in keeping with the feeling of uneasiness I had throughout the read. 

Here is the plot synopsis from Goodreads:
"Edith Parker has been a widow for ten years, but she tries to keep her husband’s memory alive by carrying a picture of him from room to room. Then, on the anniversary of his death, she is visited by a young man who claims to have a message from him. On the promise of further communications with the deceased, Mrs. Parker invites the mysterious stranger to live with her. While this visitation first seems like the answer to her prayers, she soon finds her actions may have started a chain of events that yield tragic consequences for everyone she cares about.

Dark, at times suspenseful, infused with black humor, The Believers examines a number of issues relating to the nature of faith, but it never tells the reader what to think."

Sounds interesting, no?

Honestly, I was not quite sure what to make of this book.  At times it felt as though two completely different authors were switching off while telling the story, because the "voice" changed fast and furiously.  I had to go back and re-read portions several times before I understood what was happening. There were huge jumps in sequential time, and the time period the novel takes place in wasn't firmly established. It is late spring/ early summer in a small town that could be anywhere and I'm guessing from some decriptions of clothing it takes place in the late fifties or early 1960's. I'm not entirely sure I ever figured out all the twists and turns in this novel, but I think that may be just what the author intended. This book is at times disquieting, and certainly not what I expected. 

The very first passage set a jangly-nerved tone that stuck with me throughout the book. Fire and open flame make me uncomfortable and nervous, and in the prologue we are presented with a dying woman who has fallen to the floor of a burning barn. I read this passage first (of course) and twice again after events in the book I thought may relate to it. The first chapter is really just a young man asking for directions. It was difficult to get through and I was afraid the book was going to stall out because the very early chapters seemed to focus on mundane conversations but I revisited them several times looking for clues that I missed to explain events later in the book. 

Here is a video trailer from author Travis Gulbrandson that has him reading a brief passage from the prologue:

Almost every passage in this novel seems to relate to another. Characters repeat actions of other characters and the repetition cause you to question if you had already read an account of an event. Although it is difficult to explain this concept without giving away any plot points, it was an effective and interesting device. In one instance a man is described methodically folding the wax paper wrapping from a sandwich and then several chapters later another man folds a wrapper into squares and then slips it into a picnic basket. Several characters smoke and the descriptions of their savoring the smoke and exhaling are similar and unite many characters. 

(A note of caution: if you were ever a smoker or were trying to quit, opening the pages of this book or viewing it on your e-reader is akin to watching consecutive episodes of Mad Men - you'll be itching to light up so bad that you may want to wait to read this until you are well free of the temptation. I haven't smoked in years and years but I bummed one from my husband because this book all but reeks of tobacco!)

There are some very interesting language choices used by the author, mostly the linking of words into one long word that I found striking. "Firecherry" to describe the lit end of a cigarette, "graystriped" to describe a cat and "burntblack" to describe the soot on a candle holder are a few I remember. One thing I didn't care for was that every character seemed to have a problem with drooling or a runny nose. There were so many times a character was referred to as having a slime covered upper lip or was gurgling back saliva that I was grossed out. It was very descriptive, but something I found really off-putting. 

To briefly describe the plot, a young man comes to a small town in search of a woman he has never met. He tells her he has a message from her deceased husband and that sets off a chain of events that many people in this small town seem to be curious about. Posing as her nephew, the young man stays on and becomes more involved in the lives of her neighbors, a waitress at a local diner and the woman herself. A series of flashbacks tell you more about the woman, the young man, and several other members of this community, while nothing is quite what it seems. It poses the question "should we believe everything we're told?" and also "when we hear a story presented as the truth, what do we do with the telling?"

 I think The Believers is a very interesting novel and I would likely read another venture from the author.   There are some very dark, explicit descriptions of sex, abusive behavior, and violence which aren't for the faint of heart. I felt at times I should've kept notes as I read to help me remember and puzzle through the mysteries and sequence of events in the book.  I liked it, but I am still curious as to who some characters were in relation to the young man and if they were supposed to be related to each other it was lost on me.  The web of mystery unraveled a bit and I still wonder if the Mathilda who was mentioned in the first few pages was half of the swimming couple and who Sarah's father was.  For these reasons I give it three out of five stars.

I received this e-book copy of Mr. Gulbrandson's The Believers from a LibraryThing members' giveaway. Thank you for giving me the chance to read and review your work. 

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