Sunday, October 30, 2011
the historical conquests of Henry Bright
"What was it like?" I asked the friend who passed along his copy of this book to me. "It was what I expected," was his reply. "Josh Ritter writes novels the same way he writes songs."
Knowing that we are both big fans of Josh Ritter's intelligent and narrative lyrics, I took that to be a complimentary review.
Bright's Passage, the debut novel by the gifted American songwriter does indeed read very lyrically. Sprinkled with moments of perfect poetry and seeped in mythology and magic realism, it does feel at times as though you are reading a signature Ritter ballad.
The tale of Henry Bright, who returns to West Virginia from the horrors of the trenches of World War I, is at times parable, at times historical fantasy. When he liberates an angel from a scene painted on the ceiling of a bombed out cathedral in France, Henry unknowingly transports the angel with him from the battlefields to his lonely home in Appalachia, where it is encapsulated in the body of his horse. The horse/angel instructs Henry to kidnap his childhood friend, and after she dies in childbirth, to burn down his home (igniting wild fires that spread across the state) and flee with his infant son from his vengeful father-in-law.
The tale of their flight is interspersed with flashbacks to the war in France. The flashbacks, filled with brutality and wonder, are particularly powerful, written with a real sense of humanity tempered by self-preservation in the face of insanity.
I had some issues with the voice of Henry Bright, especially when he converses with the angel/horse; at times his words felt contrived, did not ring particularly true. But I suppose if I were talking with a horse/angel, I might sound a little less than real too. Ritter's beautifully poetic sense of language, his lyrical sensibilities, his perfect feel for detail, more than negate these issues.
Bright's Passage is a compelling read, an impressive first novel by a gifted storyteller. Not all questions are answered by the novel's end, but whether this is a function of the often perplexing nature of a tale encompassing magic realism, or whether this indicates that there is another story yet to come about Henry Bright and his quest, is another question that also remains, for the time being at least, unanswered.