This Side of Salvation

18038539Author:Jeri Smith-Ready
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Shelf: Realistic Fiction

“Ooh, sneaking in math homework. Rebel geeks!”
“Studying like there’s a tomorrow,” I said with a movie-trailer voice.

I’d like to consider myself secular, but I know I’m not because I only like the festivals and holidays. The fun ones. Maybe I’m straddling the line between atheism and agnosticism, but the bottom like is: I’m not a believer. I don’t believe in Gods or gods and although it doesn’t mean my faith, or lack thereof, casts shadow or light or whatever-the-fuck on my perspective, I do consider that my views w/r/t This Side of Salvation would differ radically from believers’. I consider it, but I don’t know. The point I’m trying to state is that this review, this book should be taken with a grain of salt if you believe what I consider.

This Side of Salvation is a peculiar book in its entirety. The elements have been before seen, dealt with individually, successfully in other novels, but this particular combination I’ve never come across. Not only that, it’s the depiction of teenagers, the voices of characters, that makes it rare, if not unique. It was refreshing. From its simple cover in the air to the minimalistic prose and lack of angst, I am appreciative of every. damn. thing.

A couple of days ago, Ready was an author for me to ignore if recommendations came up because her fantasy works never did anything for me- actually, I remember hating Shade in especial. I’ll be on the lookout for her next contemporary novel, however, if one comes.

Despite what it seems like, This Side of Salvation isn’t a snarkfest on religion, or about teenage rebellion or horrible parents, or how religion can sometimes fuck up so many lives. Nor is it about the mystery. Faith is a major theme of the story, but it’s not the principal one. This is the tale of David: hero-wanna, a believer who just want his parents back on the track, for his family to heal. At the end of the story, it’s a coming of age novel, learning to find your own salvation, helping others in their battles, not fighting the demons them. Mostly, he just wants his family back and he’s given up everything thing for it.

The relationship dynamics are one of the things that solidified my appreciation for the story. David and his sister, Mara; his best friend, Kane and girlfriend, Bailey, had deep bonds between them that I could feel. Their characters were also fleshed out. Characters that felt like teenagers: not bland or monumentally sarcastic, nor macho nor too mature. They had their lame jokes and fights, things they do I’d rather not, but despite the absence of the Cooper adults, this is thankfully not a case of missing parents syndrome, where all the adults magically disappear.

“So she’s a prophet with no profit.” Kane smacked the dashboard in glee. “Ha! I love the English language.”

(I love this kind of shit. Grown-ups might frown at these lame attempts, but my friends and I spent ages AGES laughing at stupid jokes like this.)

Another thing I like is that nothing hinges on the mystery, or the reveal-about their parents, his brother’s death, what happened forty days. Because this is not a mystery. It seems like one, they look for clues, Mara and David go on a hunt for their parents, but they just want their parents back, Even if they haven’t been parents for a long while. However, it doesn’t seem like their parents could be anywhere within human reach. They appear to have been Rushed.

The story, while moving forward, also tracks back in alternate chapters, telling the story from when it all began, how it all began. The debilitating fascination/obsession of his parents with the end of the world as they know it, while they’re cavorted off to salvation by Christ, and further back, when his father started speaking in Biblical terms and when did David find his salvation, or what triggered it all, how long the ramifications of the trigger have been in effect, how adverse. Yet another thing I like is that the book never takes a stance on religion; David is Christian, but the book never condemns him for his belief, or allude that his parents actions were a result of their faith, that the religion is to blame, nor does it ever preach. In fact, it’s Bailey, an atheist, who helps restore David’s faith when everything’s blown to Hawaii for the Cooper family.

However, the author takes a moment or two, via her characters, to remark upon the existing perverted societal structures around religion. Cults and interpretations and how a beautiful thing can be warped by human mistake, or deliberation.

We should pick three random verses and form our own religion. Except instead of the Bible we should use a different book. Like Lord of the Rings. Or Harry Potter.

Little does she know there already are. Fandoms. They be nightmares and exquisite dreams in one neat package, like religion.

A few things here, a few things there that behooves me to mention but whatever. One thing I would like to comment on is the climax, or destination of Mara and David’s journey. Reaching there, the story seemed to lose a lot of its substance at once, even the writing seemed a bit flaccid. The last chapters really lost me as an enthusiastic reader. They weren’t bad, per se, or badly written; it’s just the conclusion I can’t wrap my head around. It seemed like a switch had been flipped and everyone(that mattered) had begun to see the light. So obviously I liked it all the more when (view spoiler) Another thing I can’t begin to comprehend is why would his parents have had him memorize all the (view spoiler)

“Your son tore you family in half.”
“You both did,” Dad says.

This is one of the few times This Side of Salvation truly enraged me. His son did no such fucking thing! Time and again, he only tried to bring them together. The father tore up the family and not only is he not owning up to his actions nor defending his son, he has the nerve to accuse David, even while he isn’t. The lack of reaction from David makes me think that even he accepts this, but I see no fucking basis for the assumption.

David’s automatic, almost magical, forgiveness for his father frustrated me. It’s not without the realm of possibility or acceptability- hell, there’s a fucking reason, for it. The whole process of him arriving at the decision is right there for perusing in the book, so it’s not really a flaw that I’m discussing here. It’s a pet peeve, something personal I can’t abide by, that I see oh-so-very often in books. I don’t like it because I’m like that as well, when it counts and I hate that.

If all that ain’t enough for you, consider this: the author discussed Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible in her note, and there’s a kindred love of the album in the book. Excuse me, HELL YES!

Review copy provided by the publishers.



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