Thirteen years after Charles Frazier’s American civil war novel was at the top of the bestseller list, I’ve finally read it. Or listened to it, actually. Frazier himself has been reading it to me in the car for several weeks now, and he has a beautiful voice, well suited to the story he has to tell.
In one strand of the story, I journeyed with Inman as he faced obstacle after obstacle on his way home to his fiancee, Ada. It had an episodic feel to it; no particular progression to the various encounters – they just happened, as he comes across friend and foe and in between. In the other strand of the story, Ada is helped to look after the farm she has inherited by the plucky Ruby. I loved Ada for her deep intelligence, impracticality and compassion.
It’s a novel with the same kind of meditative beauty and innate violence as Cormac McCarthy’s work, but I thought Frazier’s world was a less cold one, that he had to give Ada and Inman the happy ending they deserved – that the reader deserves.
But he doesn’t. Inman returns to Ada only to be shot down, almost randomly, a few pages from the end. I don’t think Frazier should have done that, not even if the source history he was vaguely working from demanded it. It undercuts the long journey toward reunion that forms the rest of his novel. We know McCarthy’s world is cruel; we expect it. But your world, it seemed a little kinder.
Yet there are antecedents. So many moments of chance, and of good luck falling Inman’s way; maybe Frazier was only trying to balance things out. At one point Frazier is shot and even shallowly buried. Later, another character is also shot and left for dead. Both of them survive. Despite all the driving power of chance in the narrative, moments like these stretch credibility.
Yet it is a beautiful book, rightly canonised, which has much to say about life, as well as telling a familiar yet beautiful story.