the wake of forgiveness

The Wake of Forgiveness, the debut novel by Bruce Machart–officially out as of yesterday from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt–has a big storyteller narrator who knows how to describe sweeping panoramas and then move seamlessly in for a close-up. We follow an owl for three paragraphs, then zoom down to a man trying to extricate himself from a fence. On the next page, a rider on horseback notices the man by the fence.

The Wake of Forgiveness has a beautiful, symmetrical structure:

  1. A Winter Harvest: February 1895 (Karel being born)
  2. Turning the Earth: March 1910 (horse race)
  3. A Breeding of Nettles; December 1924 (Karel and Sophie and the baby)
  4. A Sacrament of Animals: March 1910 (Karel and Graciela)
  5. Meander Scars: May 1898 (the photo of their mother lost)
  6. The Blind Janus: December 1924 (the baby and the 2 brothers the conflict escalates and the fire)
  7. Testaments to Seed: March 1910 (Karel and Graciela)
  8. A Reaping of Smoke and Water: December 1924 (it all comes together)
  9. A New, Warm Offering: February 1895 (the wet nurse arriving)

But what was most amazing were the sentences–both long:

Alive in Karel’s mind is only a whisper of suspicion, one muted by the astonishing beauty of what he’s seen, and he smiles at the fortune of having borne witness to something so graceful and yet so capable and strong, to a girl turned woman before his eyes, to that woman flashing her white teeth at him, smiling because, for her, as for Karel, there is nothing quite so thrilling as a race run on horseback, nothing filled more with wonder, nothing so able to convince you that you are flesh and blood and alive in the world that offers so few joys other than this running.

and short:

The rain needles his good eye, and the sky is dark enough to suggest that the moon has orphaned the heavens.

I heard Bruce read from The Wake of Forgiveness last March in Italy (he was the Sirenland Fellow). On Saturday, he’ll be reading at Cornerstone Books in Salem, MA. The rest of his author tour is online. If you’re in the area, go out and make Bruce welcome. I highly recommend this first novel.

See also this Sunday’s review in the L.A. Times.

9 thoughts on “the wake of forgiveness

  1. I like the idea of a changing perspective and structural parallels but these excerpts don’t do that much for me. I notice the writing more than what he’s trying to say. Still, it’s good to read your review of a debut author.


    • Maybe they would mean more in context–I was trying not to give away the story. Those verbs in the second example in particular really explode in meaning where they appear in the book.


  2. I just finished this novel, and plan to read it again. Amazing. But challenging. The language is like nothing I have read in a long time, so textured and rich, pitch perfect. The prose demands attention. So does the structure, with its constant circling back. Your outline is helpful. One of the reasons I want to read it again is to see if I think it’s necessary that it jumps back and forth in time. I think it is, because the novel’s truth is in a few repeatedly viewed events as much as what flows from them. There’s not so much a big climax as a working out of what is and what was. That is, the turning points feel organic and real, like ones those of us with less extreme circumstances might have and be haunted by, rather than artificial events. To me, the greatness of this novel is in its strangeness that it takes almost for granted. It doesn’t make so big a deal out of its gothic circumstances as explore them within the lost world that gave rise to them.

    Thank you, Cynthia, for calling our attention to this book.


    • Richard, I can’t thank you enough for coming back and sharing your thoughts about the book. I wish we could get more of this going on. It’s such fun to hear what others think about these books.

      You raise an interesting point about whether the jumps in time are necessary. I liked seeing the young Karel up against the older Karel and wondering about how he got that way. I think it added to the narrative drive. Another thing this type of structure does is point to the “continuous life”–that the kid we were, the teen-ager we were…we are all the same person. Which goes along with what you were saying about “the working out of what is and what was.” And I agree: a series of smaller resolutions is much more realistic than one big climax. And again yes, wonderful–it explores its gothic circumstances “within the lost world that gave rise to them.”


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