Apr/May 1999 Book Reviews

East of the Mountains

David Guterson
Bloomsbury, 1999 279pp
ISBN: 0 7475 43682

reviewed by Ann Skea

Be warned! This book is not for the squeamish. Open-heart surgery in a war zone is graphically described; a veterinary procedure on a badly mauled hunting dog is related in fine detail; a young girl is shown in the unlovely agonies of an impeded birth; and Ben Givens, whose story this is, shares with us his unenviable doctor's knowledge of the bodily deterioration which faces him as his inoperable cancer progresses.

True, there are idyllic scenes in the sagelands and apple orchards on the verges of the Columbia River. There are wonderful memories of Givens's earlier life - his family, his wife, his daughter and adult grandson. And there are some powerful hunting scenes which convey the excitement and danger which makes hunters out of otherwise compassionate men.

Guterson is a fine writer and, mostly, his story and his characters are interesting and believable. I say 'mostly', because I had difficulty believing that Ben Givens, seventy-three years old and a sick man, could survive a near-fatal car accident with a badly gashed head and then walk for a night and a day through rough country, in foul weather, dragging a wounded dog on a makeshift sledge, and getting involved in a terrifying encounter with hunting Wolfhounds on the way. Didn't those medical experts, who are thanked by Guterson in his Acknowledgments, mention the effects of shock to him?

In spite of such doubts, I found Ben Givens to be a likeable character. And his adventures and reminiscences, on what he intended to be his final day of life, are curious and interesting. When we first meet him, he is experimentally placing the barrels of his shotgun in his mouth before setting out on a well-planned suicide journey. Ironically, he almost dies several times on this trip. But by the end of it, the people he has met and the situations he has been inadvertently involved in, have changed his mind about suicide.

It is not altogether clear why Givens changes his mind. Nor, given his earlier musings on what is to come as his pain and bodily deterioration progress, is it altogether believable. But in the end, even when suicide seems to be the most rational and desirable option, it is clear that the urge to live is so powerful that it is very, very difficult to overcome it. So, David Guterson's unusually adventurous scenario is as good a reason for a dying man to change his mind as any. Meanwhile, Ben Givens's story shows us something of both the bleakness and the richness of human life.


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