Of Stillness and Storm by Michele Phoenix (review)

ofstillnessandstorm_phoenix_thnelsonfrom the book cover:

“I felt torn between two worlds. Each with its own mystery. One more captivating than the other, but the other more real and breathing.”

It took Lauren and her husband ten years to achieve their dream—reaching primitive tribes in remote regions of Nepal. But while Sam treks into the Himalayas for weeks at a time, finding passion and purpose in his work among the needy, Lauren and Ryan stay behind, their daily reality more taxing than inspiring. For them, what started as a calling begins to feel like the family’s undoing.

At the peak of her isolation and disillusion, a friend from Lauren’s past enters her life again. But as her communication with Aidan intensifies, so does the tension of coping with the present while reengaging with the past. It’s thirteen-year-old Ryan who most keenly bears the brunt of her distraction.

Intimate and bold, Of Stillness and Storm weaves profound dilemmas into a tale of troubled love and honorable intentions gone awry.

◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊

From the haunting and poetic prologue, to the gorgeous language and melancholy mood of the epilogue, Of Stillness and Storm held me in its grip.  Written in first person, this is an immersive and thought-provoking story of a missionary family in Nepal.

I had no illusions about marriage being easy.  I’d witnessed enough of them to recognize the truth.  so I entered my own with eyes wide open, eager for the joys and challenges of twoness as I relinquished the freedoms and frustrations of oneness, confident in the vows that would seal us to each other. (pp. 59-60)

Told in two parts, it begins with Lauren, the narrator, and her son living with intermittent power in their home near Kathmandu while her husband, Sam, is trekking to remote villages for weeks at a time.  The narrative switches between the present, where the Coventry family is slowly disintegrating and Lauren finds solace online in a renewed connection, and the past – taking the reader back to the semester abroad where Lauren and Sam met, through the early part of their marriage and the years of Sam’s unfaltering push for them to go to Tibet regardless of Lauren’s misgivings and their young son’s objections.

Sufficient.  That’s what life felt like in Nepal.  And though the “lacks” of my new life had proven to be a challenge to my attitude and outlook, Sam had thrived in them, as if the deprivations were a badge of honor.  He saw them as life-enhancing opportunities.  Maybe faith-proving too. (p.34)

As the divides between them increase, Lauren becomes more distracted with her Facebook correspondence until her family nears the breaking point and then reaches it with devastating consequences.

Though there were still moments of connection between us, they’d grown scarcer with each of Sam’s returns, and every time he left again, I lost more of our son.  Ryan pretended not to miss his dad and went out of his way to let me know how little he cared.  About anything.  It wasn’t so much in words as in the absence of words–overfull silences.  (p.7)

Throughout, I felt I was being given a window on the missionary experience as well as the ups and downs of a marriage and worried for the effects of Sam’s decisions and Lauren’s capitulation on an increasingly withdrawn and angry Ryan.

I was discovering again that love, like grief, doesn’t die.  It bleeds until it can no more.  Then, pale and listless, sleeps. (p.123)

This is a novel that is at once beautiful and terrible.  The language and voice kept me enthralled while devastating me with events as they unfolded.  It lends itself to questions of where devotion ends and zealotry begins, where is the line between worship and idolatry, and what are the consequences of visiting the latter of either on children.

Quite likely to be one of the most powerful works of fiction I read this year, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.   5/5 stars.

Of Stillness and Storm by Michèle Phoenix | Thomas Nelson, Dec 2016 | paperback, 336 pages

This review refers to a free copy received from Thomas Nelson and Zondervan’s Fiction Guild, in exchange for an honest review.  All opinions expressed are my own, including the audacious suggestion that this should be required reading for those considering taking children on an extended mission – possibly even for those thinking of relocating a family to another country.


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