Monday, November 7, 2011

book review: The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak

The backstory: The Soujourn, Andrew Krivak's debut novel, is a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award and won the 2012 Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

The basics: This novel opens in Pueblo, Colorado in June of 1899 when Jozef Vinich is an infant. The next section announces a location of Dardan, Pennsylvania in 1972, but the novel is really the story of Vinich's life, and in between his infanthood in Colorado and his time in Pennsylvania, he lives in his father's native Austria and fights in World War I.

My thoughts: The opening chapter of The Sojourn is among the most haunting I have read. It's beautifully written, undeniably tragic and a fascinating beginning to a life story. As the action shifts to Pennsylvania, I continued to be intrigued. How did Jozef's journey lead him here? Why 1972? The road is a winding one, and unfortunately it was often a boring one.

It was unabashedly dark, and ultimately honest, about the horrors of war:
"For the first time, I feared what a man was capable of doing to me in that war, a man weaker than I, and yet one whom I was bound to obey, at least in his presence. At that moment, I would have chosen to have been blown to bits by random artillery rather than to have had Captain Edmund Prosch be the last man to see me alive before a firing squad put a bullet through my heart."
The war stories were ultimately uneven for me. Although Krivak's writing was strong throughout, the plot grew rather repetitive in the middle. I kept reading because I was curious how the story would end up in 1972 in Pennsylvania. If not for the hint of that ending, I might have abandoned this book. Thankfully, I stuck with it, as the last 25% was completely brilliant and exciting.

In many ways, this novel feels like three novels. I adored the beginning scene, was bored through the middle of it, and once again enchanted by the last quarter of it. Overall, it was undeniably uneven, and Krivak is a strong enough writer that I believe the pacing issues were intentional. The war scenes were dull and perhaps meant to be slogged through, as war itself is. Despite my issues with more than half of this novel, it is one I ultimately enjoyed. The middle keeps it from being National Book Award-worthy for me, but I will be curious to see what Krivak does next.

Favorite passage: "For, though I say that I longed for home, I couldn’t say where that home was now."

The verdict: Although I struggled through more than half of this short novel, the slow part was bookended by a haunting beginning and a beautiful ending. I find myself remembering the strengths and not focusing on the weaknesses. Krivak is a strong writer, and I hope his next novel is stronger and more consistent. The Sojourn is a difficult novel, but fans of historical literary fiction and novels of war will likely find enough great to balance the boring here.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 192 pages
Publication date: April 19, 2011
Source: I bought it for my Kindle

Treat yourself! Buy The Sojourn from Amazon in paperback or for the Kindle.

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  1. I was looking forward to reading this one. I'm glad to hear that the writing is beautiful and the last quarter of the book amazing, even if overall it suffered from some poor execution. Sounds like a book to read.

  2. It does sound as if this one was a little uneven and off balance, and that in itself would be enough to prompt me to ignore it. I did appreciate your thoughtful commentary on this one, so thanks for sharing it with us!

  3. I do love fiction set around the world wars and this does sound a little different. I may have to give it a try.

  4. That unevenness in books like this really discourages me! The good parts sound really beautiful though!

  5. Thanks for this review. I am looking forward to reading this one.

  6. The Sojourn was my favorite book of 2011. As you mentioned, that opening scene is excellent and the last quarter really shines. I didn't feel the same way you did about the middle. I thought the war scenes were really gritty and depressing and overall really well done!
    I enjoyed reading your thoughts!


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