Book Review: Neverhome
Posted December 8, 2014on:
Neverhome, by Laird Hunt. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2014, 246 pp.
This book was so much more, so much better than I expected. I was not familiar with author or title, but the jacket description about a woman dressing as a man to fight in the Civil War drew my attention. It seemed like the kind of character and story that I would enjoy, but I did not expect the depth and beauty I discovered here. What a gift!
Laird Hunt writes with a style reminiscent of Faulkner (one of my all-time favorites), but with a story that reminds me of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a surreal Odyssey journey with odd characters and mysterious encounters of the Civil War era, which seem both real and unreal, recognizable and hazy, familiar and impossible alike.
Ash Thompson is one of the most compelling characters I have encountered in a long time. Originally Constance Thompson, she is a married farm woman in Indiana when the Civil War breaks out. The opening line of the book introduces her unflinching voice, and lays out her story in relationship with her husband Bartholomew: “I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic.” (3) Ash is not running away from her life, but her narrative includes both a compulsion toward the war and desire for adventure. She is one of the best soldiers in her company, fearless and brutal, cunning and unforgiving, an instrument of death to the enemy. She has no patience for those uncomfortable with the violence and death all around. An incident offering her coat to a woman by the road makes her famous throughout the Union Army, when a fellow soldier composes “The Ballad of Gallant Ash.”
This is not a book about a woman dressing up in men’s clothing. This is a story about a person who lives beyond the expectation of her birth gender and its cultural norms, who finds herself at home both in uniform and in a dress and uses both to her advantage. Both dress and uniform betray her equally, as she betrays them. Ash is driven by her own restlessness and fearlessness, which mask a grief and longing arising from her past. As the title implies, Ash was never able to be at home as Constance, and she will never be at home as Ash, either.
This one of the best books I’ve read all year, and it will haunt me for a long time. I could not put it down. Hunt’s writing delivered me directly into Ash’s world, and Ash’s narrative felt like something driven. The story contains a series of improbable, even impossible events, yet as you read those events seem like the only reasonable thing that could transpire. Neverhome is a deeply compelling book, in every way. I will be seeking out more from Laird Hunt.