Thursday, October 20, 2016

Book Review: "Ashes" by Steven Manchester

Brothers Tom and Jason Prendergast have been estranged for years, since each committed an act of betrayal against the other, essentially ending their relationship. The one thing that had always united them was their hatred for their violent, alcoholic, physically and psychologically abusive father, and each left home and any contact with him as quickly as they could.

It's a surprise to both when they get word that their father has succumbed to cancer. But in his ultimate act of asshole-ism, he specifies in his will that both Jason and Tom must drive cross-country to Seattle (he never liked flying) to spread his ashes. Together. If they do, they'll benefit from the contents of a sealed envelope their father left with his lawyer. If they're not willing to make the trip together and perform this final task, they'll get nothing.

While neither has any idea what, if anything, their father could have had that is worth anything, curiosity and need get the best of both of them. Within minutes of beginning the cross-country trip, they're at each other's throats, needling each other with painful memories of their childhood and their father's abuse. They couldn't have taken more different paths in adulthood—Jason is two years away from retirement after years as a prison guard, while Tom is a college professor. Yet as they criticize the other's life choices, habits, and virtually every move, they start realizing they have more in common than they realize, and each could truly benefit from listening to the other.

Their journey takes them through small towns and big cities, and they spend a lot of time rehashing the way their father treated them. And while neither is particularly happy with their lives right now, and they want nothing more than to be rid of their father (and each other) as quickly as possible, they can't help but imagine what is inside the envelope that is their reward at the end of the trip.

Can we ever get over the pain and trauma inflicted on us in childhood, particularly by our parents? Is there a statute of limitations on being angry at your siblings, or are you justified in resenting, even hating them, all your life? How is it that someone who doesn't really know you can diagnose your problems quicker than you can?

In Ashes, Steven Manchester strives to answer those questions, framed against the backdrop of Jason and Tom's tumultuous road trip. Family drama always provides fascinating fodder for novels, and this is no exception. While the story unfolds much as you'd expect it would, Manchester does a great job teasing out the tension, making you wonder what roadblocks might befall the brothers which could hamper their ability to complete their trip and see if there's gold at the end of the, well, envelope.

I had never read anything Manchester has written before, although it appears he's fairly prolific. He's a really strong storyteller. My one criticism of this book is that I wished the characters didn't fall into such complete stereotypes—the prison guard drives a pickup truck, listens to country music, and loves to eat fried, greasy food and smoke cigars; the college professor mostly eats salads and lighter foods, and drinks wine. While it turns out the characters had more depth than it appeared on the surface, it threw me for a loop initially.

This is a good, solid story, full of moments to make you laugh, and a few which might bring a tear to your eye. But in the end, it's a palpable reminder of how we don't often realize how important people are to us until we're missing them.

NetGalley and Story Plant provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!


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  2. Many thanks for the wonderful review. I'm thrilled that you enjoyed ASHES.