Review of A Land Without Sin, by Paula Huston

by Guest Blogger March 04, 2016

Review by Marilyn McEntyre


Surprising Territory

Jane Austen’s heroines all had some growing to do. Elizabeth needed to recognize her prejudice and Emma her pride. Fanny needed courage to temper her patience and Marianne prudence to temper her exuberance. Not all of them are immediately likeable. It’s why we remember them with respect and affection: they mirror some of the complexities of what Anaïs Nin called “the personal life deeply lived.” Good novelists complicate what we thought we knew or believed or valued in each other. Paula Huston makes an art out of complexity.

Eva, the 34-year-old photojournalist whose search for her missing brother forms the central plotline of Paula Huston's A Land Without Sin (Cascade books, 2013), makes a similar demand on our sympathies. She has been hardened by parents who saw too much brutality in Eastern Europe. She has witnessed more than her share of atrocities from behind expensive photo lenses she has carried into war zones, putting herself repeatedly in harm’s way. She has learned to accept the limited satisfactions of sex without love, and reserves her deepest affections for the brother, now a priest, whose deep spirituality she can’t fathom, but whose love for her is a lifeline. Though she doesn’t know it, the assignment she takes on to photograph Mayan inscriptions among ancient pyramids in southern Mexico will not only lead her closer to where she believes her brother is in hiding, imprisoned, or lying dead, but will also open a “path with a heart” and engage her in a spiritual quest she could not have planned or guessed.

Eva’s story leads readers, too, into surprising territory: to war-torn Croatia, to a Camaldolese monastery on the Pacific coast, to a downscale neighborhood in Chicago, into stony ruins, into small homes where alien forms of love light up humble lives, into 15th-century churches in whose shadow local cultures have taken root, and into a jungle where death by armed militia or animal predators hovers close to the overgrown paths of fugitives that she follows. We have to admire the tough, un-self-pitying resilience and the wit and will that have enabled her to survive trauma and emotional deprivation. We also see how the hardened heart, while a common self-protection, brings suffering to those who substitute it for one that makes itself vulnerable to pain and loss.

Deft Storytelling

The range of characters in this remarkable and ambitious novel testifies to the ways far-flung and culturally distant lives intersect as callings and curiosities lead some away from home and lead others to open their doors to wandering strangers. Eva’s boss is a taciturn Dutch archaeologist whose reticence masks the passion he funnels into intense scholarly labor and the anguish of living with a dying woman. The woman, however, to whom Eva finds herself drawn despite her own inhibitions, is radiant with intelligent kindness and something beyond that it takes Eva some time to identify. Their son, too, tugs on her heartstrings, a quick apprentice to his father who carries a burden of ambivalence about the work that keeps his parents apart when he needs them. Eva’s fascination with this little family is fueled by the great hunger she has been left with, growing up on her own. She is similarly fascinated by the Zapatista rebels, their passion, their commitment to justice, their solidarity—and by what she suspects is her brother’s deep involvement with them.

Even readers whose memory of the 1994 rebellion in Chiapas is vague, or whose curiosities haven’t moved them toward Mayan culture or monastic life, will find themselves invested in Eva’s odyssey and in the deftly drawn issues this novel presents. Paula Huston elegantly, and without undue pressure, leads us to our own reflections on how spirituality and politics intersect, how foundational a sense of justice is to authentic piety, and how real the call to martyrdom may be for those who work at the ragged edges of what we perhaps too comfortably call civilization. This superbly crafted story does what good stories ought to do: it invites us to imagine points of view quite foreign to our own, to recognize how the threads of our own lives might be pulled on by lives that seem quite remote, and to consider how the Spirit that broods over the waters may find its way into the darkest corners of a rebel camp or the shadows of a sickroom and disturb a troubled heart into inexplicable acceptance.

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Marilyn McEntyre, formerly professor of American Literature at Westmont now teaches Medical Humanities at the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program, offers writing workshops and retreats, and finds that her happiest days are those that include a little quiet time, a few hours of writing, a conversation with one of her kids, and a walk with her husband. Her books include Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, What's in a Phrase?, and most recently A Faithful Farewell and A Long Letting Go--the last two written for people who are dying and for their caregivers. Reading Bryan Doyle is her idea of a good time..


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