I'm not particularly good at writing praise for books I love; I find it much easier to enumerate the things I dislike about a book I read (ahem). I can talk about the positive qualities of mediocre books, using specific examples and tie-ins to other books, till the cows come home, yet when I really love a book, I find it difficult to express anything more substantial than "this book is magnificent, and you should read it, too."
But I am going to try my hand at true praise, because John Corey Whaley's Where Things Come Back deserves it. I mentioned this award-winning young adult novel this past week as one of my #fridayreads, but I hadn't yet finished the book at that point. I want to give the entire book its due. So here it goes.
According to the author, "Where Things Come Back is a novel about second chances." A two-foot tall woodpecker, thought extinct, has a second chance at existence when it is supposedly sighted near the small Arkansas town of Lily; a seventeen-year-old boy whose brother has gone missing gets a second chance to consider that town--the place where he's grown up--and the negative feelings he has for it and for the people who seem stuck there; a college philosophy major takes on his former roommate's second chance at faith. These are just three of the many second chances in the novel, all of which are woven together into an exquisite and intricately-crafted story that feels ultimately about hope and the wonderful blessing that is feeling content in one's life.
I mentioned when I wrote about this novel on Friday that I didn't know where the book was going--in a good way, I did not know what was going to happen to these characters I suddenly found myself in love with. That not knowing compelled me to keep reading, to keep traveling along the yarn of the stories that are told in such plain and beautiful language. Within the last 60 or so pages, I found myself becoming aware of the nuances of these characters whom I thought I knew. Some of these nuances are heartbreaking, some of them are frightening, but all are revelations--that we as people have more depth to us than even we sometimes realize, and that we are more capable of being simultaneously good and bad than day to day life might suggest.
I could not stop reading for the last few chapters, and my own emotions became so tied into those of the characters (what a talented writer who can make one feel such strong empathy for everyone he has created!). As their worries grew, so did mine; as their feelings of helplessness overwhelmed them, so did mine; as their hope quietly persisted, so did mine; all in tandem until on the final page, when one of life's gracious semi-resolutions occurs, I could not help but burst into tears from relief and from the utter beauty of this tale.
In the end, nothing is neatly solved, nothing is concretely resolved. Who are these people? What do they feel? What ultimately motivates them, where are they going? One does not receive the answers to these questions, just as one does not know their answers even when the questions pertain to oneself. The comforts of knowing small, ephemeral things amidst a life of unknowing is a pervasive truth of Whaley's novel, and it reassures just as it overturns everything you thought you knew about a person's capacity to hope.
Beautiful language. Characters of depth deserving the empathy of the reader. Remarkable storytelling. And so much to talk about and ruminate on. These are the gifts of only the best writers, and John Corey Whaley's Where Things Come Back is most certainly such a gift.