Friday, 8 February 2008

family matters

by Kent Haruf

After introducing us to its inhabitants in Plainsong, Haruf takes us back to Holt, Colorado. And if Plainsong, with its tight seasonal structure, showed us through the pregnancy of Victoria Roubideaux the importance of the family unit, he shows us in this more complex sequel that maintaining a family is difficult and that the pain of seperation is something you 'don't get over'.

Victoria herself has left with her daughter Katie to attend college, leaving the McPheron brothers alone again, a situation they find it hard to come to terms with. But nothing can prepare them for what is coming. It is fair to say that Haruf has included some truly shocking moments in this novel which pack a hefty emotional punch. He introduces us to Luther and Betty Wallace who are struggling to raise their two children. The state is intervening to help with food stamps, home visits and lessons on basic cleanliness but things take a nasty turn when Betty's Uncle, Hoyt Raines, a violent drunk, imposes on their hospitality. It is painful to stand by as you read and see them struggle to confront him, especially when the stakes are so high, as they will later discover.

Elsewhere D J Kephart is a young orphan, now living with his grandfather, who strikes up a friendship with one of the neighbourhood girls Dena Wells. Together they convert an empty shed into a sanctuary; succeeding, where the adults around them have failed, to create domestic bliss. Dena's mother meanwhile, abandoned by her husband, tries vainly to find a man to replace him. But again it is Raymond McPheron who often finds, with his simple summations, the phrase that best describes the realities of life. Through his own painful experience in this novel he realises that 'Every living thing in this world gets weaned eventually' and it is only through the redemptive power of love that he will find how to live past that point.

Throughout, Haruf's writing has the simplicity which made Plainsong so effective; his vivid descriptions of landscape or environment echoing the emotional landscapes of his characters and the sometimes harsh changes that time forces on them. His skill in drawing up this community and making us invest so much in its members is what makes this novel hit home so hard. Make sure you have tissue nearby.


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