Tuesday, June 30, 2009

THE HOUR I FIRST BELIEVED by Wally Lamb (2008)

This novel is a doorstop at 700 pages, but it is worth every ounce of its heft in storytelling. In the traditions of Charles Dickens, Robertson Davies and John Irving, Wally Lamb constructs a complicated tale that is grounded in humanity and its immense capacity for good and evil, secrecy and forgiveness.

The narrator is 47-year-old Caelum Quirk, a high school English teacher who has moved to Littleton, Colorado with his nurse wife Maureen. In April 1999 when Caelum is called away to his hometown in Connecticut to bear witness to his Aunt Lolly's final exit, his wife finds herself taking shelter in the library of Columbine High School where now infamously two teenaged boys mowed down several classmates before turning their guns on themselves.

Maureen suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and becomes addicted to prescription meds. In order to attempt to put at least some geographic distance between themselves and the massacre, the Quirks move back to Three Rivers and into the farmhouse where Caelum grew up. There, with the help of tenants from New Orleans, on their own redemptive quest post-Hurricane Katrina and its physical and psychological devastation, Caelum begins to understand and meet his own grief and fear and anger about his past and about his future which, in the short term, is without Maureen since she is serving time for manslaughter--having killed a bright and beautiful young man while she was stoned and behind the wheel of her car.

There is pain on every page of this book, yet it is bearable, because Lamb manages to lift its veil and reveal the true beauty that sometimes follows.

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