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Review: West of Here, Jonathan Evison

west of hereThe fictional town of Port Bonita, Washington, has a long history; once a tiny frontier town, full of self-important whites and Native Americans still trying to get by with their native way of life, in the modern day it has become a town trying to move past its history and ready to face the future. Covering a wide span of characters and stories, from explorers doing their very best to conquer the mountains to a new mother striving to make her way under her own steam to a blue collar worker in the clam factory, Evison’s epic attempts to draw a line from the past to the future, to examine what defines our towns and how our history shapes the present.

This is an example of a book that got so much hype it could never live up to it. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it, and I did like reading it, but this review isn’t going to be the love fest that I’ve seen spread around. In some respects, I do wish I’d avoided the praise it’s garnered out there, because then I think I’d have been better able to judge it based on my own experiences. As it stands, though, it was good, but didn’t quite cross the line to great like it has for so many others.

Let’s start with what I did like. I loved what the book tried to do, and in some respects I felt it succeeded. For example, the people in the nineteenth century are in the process of building a dam that, in the twenty-first century, has had a poor effect on nature and has caused the town’s economy to start struggling. This is a perfect illustration of the way that well-meaning people, without armed with the knowledge we have today, started to set things off that have a damaging effect on the present. I love it when books link up the past and the present like this and really show us why where we came from has a huge effect on where we’re going. History is important.

Unfortunately, I simultaneously felt like the book was doing a little too much and that it didn’t all link together like this. There are many storylines, which goes to show just how complex a single town can be, but a lot of them don’t really go anywhere. It’s a series of snapshots of Port Bonita, not precisely an overarching narrative – we have the explorer story, we have the Big Foot story, we have the prisoner attempting to make it on his own, we have a prostitute who is remarkably happy with her employment, and so on. The book is almost too big – and as a lover of epics, that’s a peculiar thing for me to think. As a series of snapshots, I would say it works, but as an entire book, it feels like it’s trying to get somewhere and never quite makes it.

So yes, West of Here is well-written, it is epic, and it has me interested in what Evison is going to write in the future. I liked it and I’m glad I read it. But I really wish I’d fallen head over heels in love with it, and I think it’s that expectation which left me a bit disappointed when I finished.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received an ARC of this book from Candace at Beth Fish Reads (thanks!).

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