Every so often I come across a work of contemporary fiction that breaks my heart in the best way. So much so, in this case, that I needed a bit of distance between reading and reviewing.
With prose that ranges from beautiful to mundane, this is an outstanding debut. Set primarily on Washington State’s San Juan Island, the brief descriptions were so evocative that I felt instantly transported, though I haven’t been to the island in years.
Through backstory we learn of the unlikely college friendship that developed between Magdalena (Maggie) Henry, Marco Firelli, and Lena Lindstorm.
The three of them became the center of the universe, everything revolved around them. They were the sun, the moon, and stars, orbiting each other, excluding all others, shining so brightly it hurt to look at them, eclipsing all else in the light they shed. (p.27)
We learn about Maggie’s unrequited love for Marco and the need to distance herself from the marriage between Marco and Lena that led her to a globe-spanning photography career. Though called by her mentor for a once in a lifetime opportunity, Maggie is drawn back earlier than her usual annual trip to Marco and Lena’s island home by the death of Marco, and the needs of Lena and her two children conspire to keep her there.
She usually didn’t mind the hours in the air. But this time it was different. She usually didn’t mind the hours in the air. But this time it was different. She wasn’t traveling to a new and exotic location or returning to a country she knew like an old friend. This trip was surreal–the case of dread and sorrow like lemon bitter on her tongue. (p.28)
While ostensibly about the loss and grief experienced by those who loved Marco, the children remained peripheral and though we see Lena’s grief and the effects of her decisions, this remains very much Maggie’s story.
She could hear her heart beginning to rip in two, the threads of hard work and ambition and opportunity giving way to the inexorable pull of necessity and loss. It was a rending that felt like the end of the world. (p.184)
Not far into the novel, a “mysterious stranger” is introduced. A bit convenient from a distance but when immersed in the story I didn’t care. The inclusion of this guilt and angst ridden character was an interesting addition, one that threw me out of the story for a moment but reeled me back in with possibilities.
He watched because there was no one else to watch over them now. He kept his vigil through the darkness until he heard the first trill of a lark from the meadow nearby, signaling the dawn. Only then did he rise, muscles stiff with cold, his stomach tight with hunger, and slip away through the trees. His job for the day was done. (p.41)
The addition of a motorcycle riding Aussie priest was also an unexpected and interesting choice.
This is a story of love, loss, and (in several senses) finding your way home. It is about maturing and seeing people and circumstances for what they really are, and not what you long for them to be.
She had to approach the reality of Marco’s death from the corners, with a snatch of memory, a tiny flash of recollection. (p.42)
Not since Michele Phoenix’s Of Stillness and Storm has a novel affected me this deeply, with prose that flirts with the label “literary.” Highly recommended, whether or not you are a fan of Christian fiction. I am anxiously waiting to get my hands on this author’s next book.
From the Publisher:
When globetrotting photographer Magdalena Henry loses the only man she’s ever loved, she risks her stellar career to care for his widow and young children on a remote island in the Pacific Northwest.
Free-spirited and fiercely independent, Maggie adores her life of travel and adventure. But she has a secret. She can’t let go of her first and only love, renowned architect Marco Firelli, now married to her best friend Lena.
When Marco drowns in a kayaking accident, Maggie rushes to the Firelli family’s summer home on San Juan Island. Once there she discovers that Marco was hiding something that could destroy his family. As fragile, perfectionistic Lena slowly falls apart, Maggie tries to provide stability for Marco and Lena’s three young children.
When Maggie is offered a once-in-a-lifetime chance to compete in the world’s most prestigious photography competition, she thinks she’s found the answer to their problems. Then Lena makes a choice with unexpected and devastating consequences, forcing Maggie to grapple with an agonizing decision. Does she sacrifice the golden opportunity of her career or abandon the Firellis just when they need her the most?
Gradually the island begins to work its magic. A century-old ritual to beckon loved ones home offers hope in the midst of sorrow. And a guilt-ridden yet compelling stranger hiding on the island may offer Maggie a second chance at love, but only if she can relinquish the past and move forward to find joy in unexpected places.
Ascension of Larks by Rachel Linden | Thomas Nelson, June 2017 | paperback, 336 pages
I voluntarily received a finished copy of this book for review through Book Look Bloggers. An additional copy was received through Thomas Nelson and Zondervan’s Fiction Guild. All opinions expressed are my own.