Friday, February 8, 2013

Book Review: "Fellow Mortals" by Dennis Mahoney

This is a book whose beauty and power crept up on me and took me by surprise. And I stumbled onto it while browsing in an actual bookstore, so I hope they don't all close, because how else am I going to find these gems?

Henry Cooper is a friendly mailman, always quick to lend a smile, even a hand. One beautiful afternoon while on his mail route on Arcadia Street, he lights a cigar (forbidden by his wife), and absentmindedly tosses his match to the ground. In just a few minutes, that careless action lights several houses on fire, damaging the homes of people he has come to know on his route. Henry actually saves some people from the fire, but that doesn't lessen the impact of what he has done, as a young wife is killed.

While on suspension from his job awaiting the results of an investigation, Henry wants nothing more than to help those whose lives he has affected. He and his devoted wife, Ava, take in elderly sisters Joan and Nan Finn, while they try to decide what to do next. While he is snubbed by some families, the one person he tries reaching out to most of all is sculptor Sam Bailey, whose wife, Laura, died in the fire. Sam is practically rudderless and unsure of what to do with his days, but he is revived by his work, sculpting mysterious figures from the trees near his house. Sam doesn't know how to react to Henry—he wants to be angry and hurt, even vengeful, but Henry's affability and his need to make Sam feel like he belongs wears him down.

Fellow Mortals is both a story about many different kinds of relationships as well as how people deal with the aftermath of a crisis. Ava is frustrated by Henry's openness and need to help those affected by the fire, but most of all, she wants to protect him from himself. There's the angry and overprotective neighbor, Peg Carmichael, who cannot forgive Henry and blames him for everything that goes wrong in her life. Billy and Sheri Kane, a young couple down on their luck both financially and emotionally find that the fire has damaged more than part of their home. And Sam tries to lose himself in his work while fending off advice from those who seem to know better.

This is a beautifully spare, tragic book. It has the potential to veer into melodrama but Dennis Mahoney's writing ability keeps the story engaging and surprising without sacrificing authenticity. At first there were so many characters to keep straight and no one seemed particularly sympathetic, but the story quietly grew on me, and really affected me. It's amazing how one simple, careless action has the potential to ripple throughout so many lives, and cause a chain of events to occur long after the first action happened. And one thing that truly appealed to me about this book is that there was as much power in what remained unsaid and undone as what the characters actually said and did.

This is a book that will make you feel, make you think, and maybe even make you cry. It's definitely one worth reading.

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