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East of the Mountains - David Guterson

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Author: David Guterson / Genre: Fiction

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      22.09.2006 10:16
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      No comparison to Snow Falling on Cedars

      I chose this book because of the enjoyment that I gained from reading Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson’s other novel. I wasn’t expecting this novel to be of the same standard; I have read rave reviews of Snow Falling on Cedars, including my own, but very little about this particular book. Without a doubt, David Guterson has a talent for vivid descriptions of the surroundings; unfortunately, in this case, he hasn’t shown much of a skill for a compelling story.

      The story
      Dr Ben Givens is dying of colon cancer. His wife died a year before. His daughter and grandson are settled. There only remains one thing to do; to return to the countryside of his youth, near the Columbia River, and end his life with a hunting rifle. Initially, all goes to plan as Ben sets off on his final journey along with his two beloved dogs. Then all changes in the blink of an eye, when Ben has a car accident which leaves his car wrapped around a tree.

      Rescued by two young lovers, Ben decides to make his way to his destination by hitching lifts and walking. When one of his dogs is killed and another badly injured, he is forced to take a detour, during which he meets a range of people who change his way of thinking. His thoughts are forced back to his time as a young man, when he met his wife and fought in the Second World War. Will his desire to die remain? Or will he return home and share his fear of death with his daughter?

      The characters
      The older Ben Givens is not of great interest to the reader. He has lost the will to live and as such, can only concentrate on his pain and the desire to commit suicide. Even this did little to inspire sympathy in me. However, as the story develops, and Ben begins to look back into his past, he becomes a much more interesting character. The son of a fruit orchard owner, his objective in life was to take over ownership of the orchards from his father, alongside his brother. But the war conspires against him. Joining the army, he witnesses much death and injury, which gives him great respect for the work of his then girlfriend, a military nurse and he eventually decides to become a doctor.

      Once this is revealed, Ben becomes a much more interesting character and I did become much keener to find out what happened. He is a subtle character; despite the knowledge that he will die a painful death, he does not feel sorry for himself – he merely feels that the end of his life has come and that there is no longer any point in prolonging it.

      Conclusion
      What I appreciated most of all about this book was the beautiful descriptions of the countryside in which Ben Givens finds himself. Perhaps because my grandfather was a market gardener, I found the memories of trees hung with fruit and fruit picking vividly evocative; to the extent that I could smell it. I also liked the idea of the book; dealing with the subject of someone elderly facing a life of pain and certain death is difficult to describe without having been through it and David Guterson certainly tries hard to explain those feelings.

      Unfortunately, despite the subject matter, the story is just not strong enough to be anything other than mediocre. I enjoyed the parts of the book that skipped back to the past, but somehow, I found it hard to get through the rest. The constant skipping backwards and forwards made the book disjointed and at times I struggled to keep up with the story.

      What I most disliked was the graphic descriptions of the medical problems throughout the book. I enjoy horror films, thrillers and crime fiction, yet I was still not prepared for the medical descriptions which left nothing to the imagination. I found the images of the injured dog and the patching up that he had to undergo and the description of a doctor inserting his hand into a man’s chest to manually stimulate his heart particularly distressing, all the more so because it added little to the story and seemed to be purely a ploy to grab the attention of the reader. That it did, but not in a good way.

      I wasn’t exactly disappointed by the book, because I didn’t have particularly high expectations in the first place, but I was surprised to find it so tedious to read. It is a long time since I have struggled to finish a book, but there were a number of times when I thought of giving up. David Guterson clearly is a talented writer, but in this case, relying on beautiful written descriptions of the surroundings in which the story is set is just not enough.

      I can’t really recommend this book. If you really enjoyed Snow Falling on Cedars, then maybe it is worth giving it a go. However, if you are new to David Guterson, stick to Snow Falling on Cedars, which I think is infinitely better than this.

      If you still want to give it a go, the book is available from play.com for £5.49. Published by Bloomsbury Publishing, it has 320 pages. ISBN: 0747545081

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    • Product Details

      David Guterson's first novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, was a true ensemble piece, in which even a high-stakes murder trial seemed like a judgement passed on the community at large. In his eloquent second novel, however, the author swings dramatically in the opposite direction. East of the Mountains is the tale of a solitary, 73-year-old Seattle widower. A retired heart surgeon, Ben Givens is an old hand at turning isolation to his advantage, both professionally and personally: When everything human was erased from existence except that narrow antiseptic window through which another's heart could be manipulated--few were adroit as Dr. Givens. Now, however, Ben has been dealt a problem entirely beyond his powers of manipulation: a diagnosis of terminal cancer. With just a few months to live, he sets out across the Cascades for a hunting trip, planning to take his own life once he reaches the high desert. A car crash en route puts an initial crimp in this suicide mission. But the ailing surgeon presses onward--and begins a simultaneous journey into the past. Between present-tense episodes, which demonstrate Ben's cranky commitment to his own extinction, we learn about his boyhood in Washington's apple country, his traumatic war experience in the Italian Alps, and the beginning of his vocation. Guterson narrates the apple-scented idyll of Ben's childhood in a typically low-key manner-- and orchards, of course, are seldom the stuff of melodrama. Still, many of his ambling sentences offer miniature lessons in patience and perception: They rode back all day to the Columbia, traversed it on the Colockum Ferry, and at dusk came into their orchard tired, on empty stomachs, their hats tipped back, to walk the horses between the rows of trees in a silent kind of processional, and Aidan ran his hands over limbs as he passed them with his horse behind him, the limbs trembling in the wake of his passing, and on, then, to the barn. The wartime episodes, however, are less satisfactory. Clearly Guterson has done his research down to the last stray bullet, but there's a second-hand feeling to the material, which seems less a token of Ben's detachment than the author's.