Friday, January 13, 2017

Book Review: "The Signal Flame" by Andrew Krivak

Well, looks like I've read my first truly great novel of 2017! It took two books last year, it's taken seven this year, but clearly it was worth the wait. Bleak yet hopeful, poignant, and powerful, The Signal Flame is beautifully written and draws you into its story fairly quickly.

In early 1972 in Northeastern Pennsylvania's Endless Mountains, Jozef Vinich, the patriarch of a small family, is laid to rest. The former owner of the town mill, Jozef was known not only for his rags-to-riches story, immigrating from the Austro-Hungarian part of Europe after World War I to make a life for himself, and eventually his family, but he is also known for his strong work ethic, as well as his sense of humor. He is mourned by many in the community, including his priest, who was also his best friend, but especially his daughter Hannah and his grandson Bo Konar, who bought the mill from Jozef a number of years ago.

Jozef, Hannah, and Bo all lived together, as the life of the Konar family wasn't quite a happy one. Hannah's husband, Bexhet (Becks), emigrated from Hungary to fight with the Americans during World War II, but deserted and spent time in prison. He never got over what he saw during the war, and when he returned home he was changed, until his sudden death in a hunting accident on the family land. Apart from one semester away for college, Bo has spent his lifetime working the mill, but his younger brother Sam was always the one who wanted something different, so he enlisted in the military, and on his second tour of duty in Vietnam, went missing.

As bleak as I've made the book sound, and there are moments of tragedy and moments of loss, this is equally a book about finding hope where you've believed there was none, of realizing that there is a time to let go of the grief and anger you feel, and of allowing yourself a chance at happiness. This is a book about family, about the legacies of land and emotion and anger that we bequeath to our children, and about the simple joys of nature, the smell of lumber, the sounds of wildlife.

In another author's hands this book could be maudlin, or the simplicity of its story could be boring. But in Andrew Krivak's hands, this book is almost poetic, in its use of language and its evocative imagery, in the characters he has created. Here's just one example of the beauty of his storytelling:
And when they were finished, they sat at the garden table in the twilight and watched the coals of the fire pulse red and an ashen silver without flame, sat like sated guests at their own feast, silent once again and not wondering what came next, for all that they had strived for in the course of the day lay in the past, and what anxiety each carried lay, at least for the moment, in the past as well.
This is a special book which I can't get out of my mind. I know that when I begin thinking of the best books I read in 2017, this will undoubtedly be one of them.

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

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