Leif Enger’s novel, Peace Like A River, has received a huge amount of acclaim from both professional reviewers and common readers. So it certainly doesn’t need any more from my modest little book blog.
And that’s good because…
…I didn’t care for it.
Sure, Mr. Enger is a clever fellow and the novel has its points, most of which were covered at the Notting Hill Napoleons’ discussion of the book a few weeks ago. But the group was divided in their reaction to the novel (nothing new there) with some liking it a lot while others believed it to be one of the weaker offerings we’ve had in a while.
Now, I’m not generally fond of modern art, whether it comes in a frame, a DVD cover, or between the pages of a book, so I’ll candidly admit that Peace Like A River (published in 2001) faced an uphill climb in winning me over. But, I sincerely tried to dispassionately, patiently give the book every chance to succeed. Scout's honor.
However, there was yet a second issue that increased the risk that I wouldn't care for the novel; namely, its focus on religious characters. I certainly do not require the books I read to deal with spiritual matters but when religion is presented, I most definitely want it to be real. And, from the very beginning, Peace Like a River failed this test for me.
For starters, having the protagonist being whisked by a tornado into the third heaven and alighting unhurt several miles away was hardly the way to alleviate my suspicions of the novel’s attitude towards religion. But when followed by air walking, a soup pot that never gets empty, a whole posse of Highway Patrol cops being blinded and unable to perform their legitimate functions, and then a heaven/limbo scene whose heterodoxy was especially unnerving, whatever residue of goodwill and longsuffering I had was all used up.
Do miracles happen in the real world? Of course they do. But the miracles in Peace Like A River strain even a believer’s credibility (this believer anyhow) way beyond the breaking point and not because of the specific action of the miracle alone but because of their purposes. For example, a miracle which covers for acts of vandalism, intereference with police, and aiding the flight of an convicted murderer doesn't seem to be the kind which heaven normally distributes
There were other things in this novel that kept me from liking it. Among them was a little girl who spoke, thought and wrote at a level way beyond any prodigy I’ve ever head of; the unnecessary murder of a FBI agent who, if we are to believe the author’s idea, has never heard of proper police protocol; a villain who has no transportation, let alone a GPS system, but yet manages to track his victims (several states away) in mere days; and a miracle worker who loses that power when he falls in love.
But, far worse than everything else, was an outright awful farmyard scene where the bad guy opens fire and mortally wounds a young boy. Well, I suppose I shouldn’t say “mortally” since there’s that weird Elysian fields moment on the next page where a substitute victim is offered up and an exchange of organs is made, allowing the boy to return to earth better than ever.
Too much by half. Indeed, this conclusion turned what had only been a mildly unsatisfactory read up till that time into something that was much more disheartening and distasteful. And, did I mention, the bad guy (a sexual deviant and cold-hearted killer) gets away?
Leif Enger undoubtedly had some well-written moments in this novel and I was not averse to joining my fellow Napoleons in pointing them out at our discussion that night. But those points could not make up for the book's implausibility of plot, the oddball characters, the eccentric religious views, and that terribly vexatious ending. I give Peace Like A River the nix.