When was the last time I read the final sentence of a novel and burst into tears? I did cry some toward the end of Mama Day by Gloria Naylor, which I read earlier this year, and maybe for some of the same reasons that stirred me today. Characters I had grown to love facing deep sadness and me feeling it like it was my own; the hard conclusion to a story when I was somehow wishing for a fairy tale; the powers and limits of spiritual healing embodied in a lovable character; the resilient possibility of redeeming love radiating off the pages. But there was something more when I finished Leif Enger’s novel, Peace Like a River. It was (dare I admit it?) a religious experience. Reading other reviewers’ lines on the book cover I see words like magic and miracle, phrases naming the novel’s “power to convince” and to “transcend any limitations of belief”. That’s almost calling it a religious experience, don’t you think? So let me be bold and declare: Leif Enger has done in this novel what every preacher hopes to do once in a lifetime: not just make you believe in the power of miracles, the beauty of God, the deeply satisfying mystery at the heart of even the saddest of lives, but to want to change your life because of it.
Enger writes the novel in the voice of an asthmatic 11 year old boy in a family beset with troubles, but from the perspective of the boy grown up and remembering. This memoir-like point of view (“here’s what it seemed like at 11, but I now understand …”) imbues the writing with a reality not due the story itself. The story, I will say, is not especially credible. That Enger makes you believe nonetheless is testament to his entrancing storytelling skills. The point-of-view fascinated me throughout. From what distance is he recalling these events? You do not know until the last pages, but there is hope in knowing that a future exists.
Time and again Enger’s prose caused my breath to catch. Exquisite descriptions of the most ordinary of scenes joined with plain-spoken depictions of the most extraordinary events. Sometimes I would read a paragraph and stop, despairing at my own incapacity to ever capture a scene in words like his. But more often, I paused at the sheer pleasure of the language.
These pauses remained brief, though, as I couldn’t stop turning the pages. I wanted to know more about the family members I loved almost from the first chapter. Without giving away too much (because you really must read it yourself) the story revolves around a murder and the older brother, Davy, becoming a fugitive from the law. Will the prodigious imagination of the younger sister help or hinder the family? Is the father generous and sagacious or simply bumbling and naive? Will they search for Davy together or separately? How would their journeys end?
Perhaps the central character in the novel is God. Now this, I will tell you, is a trick. How do you make God a presence in a novel without coming off as pious or preachy or a little bit loony? Enger makes the prayers and beliefs of his characters seem as natural as the clothes they wear and the breakfasts they eat.
My first thought on finishing the last sentence of this novel was that I wanted to go back and immediately start again at the beginning. Given the stack of other books calling my name, I won’t be doing that today. But I know I will return to this book before long. It’s simply too good to read only once.