Thursday, March 7, 2013

Book Review: "Benediction" by Kent Haruf

I've always been utterly captivated by Kent Haruf's storytelling ability. In novels like Plainsong and Eventide, the simplicity of his writing was used to such terrific advantage. The characters he creates are everyday people with everyday challenges (for the most part), and in a world where all too often more is more, his stories don't dwell on unnecessary drama yet touch your heart and make you think.

The same holds true for Haruf's newest novel, Benediction. In the small town of Holt, Colorado, longtime resident and hardware store owner Dad Lewis is diagnosed with terminal cancer, and he and his wife, Mary, begin planning for the end of his life and endeavor to make his final days as comfortable and stress-free as possible. While their grown daughter, Lorraine, comes home to help care for her father, her presence doesn't quite assuage the sadness and uncertainty Dad and Mary feel about their estranged son, Frank, who left Holt after he graduated high school and never returned. And as Dad's last days draw closer, reminiscences about his difficult relationship with Frank, as well as other precarious situations he found himself in throughout his life, come rushing back to challenge him.

Next door to the Lewises, a young girl named Alice moves in with her grandmother, Berta May, following the death of her own mother to cancer. She becomes a captivating presence for the Lewises, especially Lorraine, and Alice's curiosity and innocence also bring joy to the lives of Willa Johnson and her daughter, Alene, both of whom have struggled with loneliness in different ways. Meanwhile, Rob Lyle, Holt's new preacher, tries to mend his own difficult relationships with his wife and teenage son, John Wesley, both of whom resent having to move to this small town. And when Rob decides to start expressing his true feelings in his sermons, he is met with outrage and ridicule from his congregation, which further strains his family's tolerance of the situation.

Although it takes some time, these seemingly disparate characters weave together to form a rich and moving meditation on life, happiness, love, sadness, perseverance, and the beauty of life's simple joys. There is tension and relaxation, happiness and regret, all played out against the backdrop of Dad's ever-present mortality. While not a tremendous amount happens in the book, the story is so well told, so beautifully written, that you feel like you know these people and can share, and understand, how they feel.

I still believe that Plainsong, probably Haruf's most recognized novel, is his best, but Benediction is a worthy addition to his earlier works. If you like plain, strong, beautiful writing, this is definitely a book for you.

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