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Hmm. A book named after a gun. Nothing on the back of the book jacket except a quotation: 'Let us not speak of the snow that fell last winter'. A smoking matchstick on the cover. Intriguing? Maybe for some. To me, it looked mystical and overly self important. But that's just me - and that's only my very first impressions. You'd be forgiven for asking what made me select this thin tome, and of course the answer is that I didn't: it was nominated for the Carnegie Medal, so I read it in my book club leader capacity. Could the inside be better than the outside? Sadly, my feeling is no. Not at all. In fact, this book left me feeling like I'd rather recommend that my students didn't read it. Why? Well, let's start by looking at the plot.
-- The premise --
In 1910 a young boy sits with the corpse of his newly frozen father. A knock at the door brings a stranger who appears increasingly malevolent and tells a story about a gold rush in 1899. The boy's mind turns increasingly to his father's most prized possession: a gun, waiting to be used.
-- My thoughts --
Dramatic, yes. Interesting? Not to me, but then I am not really keen on books with a strong historical flavour. I would prefer to read non-fiction texts to learn about life in a gold rush. This may appeal more to other people, especially younger readers for whom this may be a new subject. I also typically prefer to read fiction set in locales and situations that I can envision. A young boy, living in an icy hut, made it difficult for me to engage with the circumstances surrounding the story. Obviously, this is a failing of mine rather than the writers and other readers are unlikely to respond similarly. So sadly, the plot held no interest for me.
This lack of interest was consolidated when the story finally began (more on the prefaces later). In fact, by the end of the first two sentences I was irritated. Judge for yourself:
"Even the dead tell stories.
Sig looked across the cabin to where his father lay, waiting for him to speak, but his father said nothing, because he was dead."
Is it just me or is this really awkwardly expressed? There is a slightly flat, repetitive tone to it and, although we couldn't have known that his father was dead, the information somehow seems almost redundant due to the way the sentence develops. I also feel that the tone here and throughout the novel is oddly didactic. I don't object to being taught, but if a fiction writer wants to teach me something I'd rather they did it subtly. I found the story telling bland and occasionally irksome. Despite some effective similes and metaphors, the overall style jarred for me. I felt dialogue was unrealistic and the tone overall felt informative. I feel that one should not be too aware of the act of reading if seeking to enjoy a story and I was always aware that I was reading a constructed story. In fact, it felt more like a bland reconstruction of events than a story. However, despite my irritation, I feel that it is probably well suited to younger, less able readers who should be able to follow the story easily.
Events happened very swiftly and they felt unconvincing to me which meant that I was unable to enjoy the story. As the story progresses, Sedgewick moves between two main time frames. In doing so he creates obvious cliffhangers which are only resolved when you have read a good chunk of the next section. This is obviously designed to intrigue, and I suspect it might be effective for a younger audience, but as I did not care about any of the characters I didn't care about the story development either.
The characters were another problem for me. Despite the dead dad, who occupies a prominent physical position throughout the story, I felt no sympathy for Sig as I didn't feel I had had time to get to know him. He is in a difficult situation in the story, but I somehow didn't connect to him. Again, this could be a failing on my part and I am not exactly the target audience, but I did feel that greater build up was required before the story began. It all felt rather rushed and the story does only last 200 A5 pages - and that's if you discount all the title pages. Furthermore, Sig doesn't react the way I would expect him to. He never wonders why the man is there. He doesn't react to shocking family news. I found him unconvincing as a young boy experiencing a series of traumatic events.
Similarly, the villain is a cartoon character. For starters, he is called Wolff. I like allegory, but it felt a bit like the writer was taking a short cut. He is instantly menacing and his motives are apparent early on, even though his back story is less so. Younger readers may appreciate the drama created by such an obvious villain, but I found him rather dull.
All of this, though, is probably excusable. I am rather older than the intended reader and I am not a fan of this type of fiction anyway so the poor writer is probably disadvantaged by my even attempting to review the book. Although, I believe most teenagers are not only capable of enjoying but would prefer a richer, more nuanced story than this. So far the writing only seems a bit weak and the book not irredeemable.
However. The big complaint follows: I find the portrayal of guns in the story very disturbing. Despite an obvious, clunking moral note sounded by one character, the overall tone of the novel is one where guns are revered and almost treated as a fetish item. The description of a gun as an object of beauty and the satisfaction of shooting one is described in a way that almost renders any subsequent warnings implied redundant. The writer adds a simplistic postscript suggesting that everyone needs to reach their own conclusion regarding their personal attitude to guns, but the storyline glorifies them and the dissenting characters are mostly stereotypes who barely register in the reader's imagination. Furthermore, the story includes quotations from sources which imply guns are powerful and a helpful tool.
My final concern was the overall moral tenor of the book. Without giving anything away, I do wish to note that I feel immoral actions are condoned by the narrator and really by the author. I probably sound like I want to brainwash people by now, but I simply object to writers celebrating immorality.
-- Conclusions --
Younger readers may be intrigued by the storyline but I feel that they are unlikely to identify with the rather featureless young hero. The writing style is rather bland and informative which has the advantage of making it easy to read, albeit slightly dull and even (for myself) irritating. The switches between time frames are managed well and the action is easy to follow which may benefit younger readers. Events are dramatic and there are a couple of twists to keep readers engaged. It would be possible to anticipate these so this is not a challenging read.
Personally, I am uneasy with the book's morality and feel that it does glorify guns, although the writer implicitly denies this in his postscript. I would not recommend this book and will not mind if my book group skip this one!
My book group appeared to be split; teen girls thought it dull; teen boys thought it was great.