Published by Harper ISBN 978-0-06-088964-7
Hardcover, $25.99, 256 pages
I have one shelf on my many, many bookshelves devoted to my all-time favorite books. Jennifer Haigh's debut novel Mrs. Kimble holds a place of honor there. She is remarkable writer, and her last novel Faith just reaffirmed my belief that she is one of the best fiction writers out there.
She recently published a short story collection, News From Heaven: The Bakerton Stories, set in different eras in the coal mining town of Bakerton, Pennsylvania. Some of the characters were featured in her previous novel, Baker Towers.
Each of the ten stories is moving, and anyone who has lived in a small town with one major employer will recognize the people in these stories. Haigh's describes people in just a few sentences and you get them right away. Teenage Regina describes her mother this way in Broken Star:
"She greeted all presents this way- you shouldn't have- no matter how worthy the occasion or how trifling the gift. It was a habit born of embarrassment. No gift- even one she'd always wished for- was worth drawing attention to herself."I feel like I know this woman because I know people just like her.
She also has such a sense of place, as with this sentence from the same story:
"Night was falling as we left the bus station, an amenity that, until then, I hadn't known the town possessed."There are many people who live lives in a small box, and even those who live in a large city may contain themselves to just a few blocks.
There were a few stories that really moved me. A Place in the Sun is about Sandy Novak, one of the characters from Baker Towers. Sandy is handsome man who left Bakerton to head west. He ends up living hand-to-mouth, bartending here, working as short-order cook there. He sleeps with his boss' wife, then steals from the boss and takes off to Vegas with a younger woman. Life hasn't turned out the way he hoped, and he thinks he has one last chance for a big score.
Sandy's story continues back in Bakerton in To The Stars, where Sandy's siblings Joyce, Dorothy and George are left to deal with the fallout Sandy leaves behind. We see the family dynamic in this encounter about Joyce:
"She accepts condolences and prayers. It is her role, always: the public face of the family. Dorothy, whose backwardness is known and accepted, busies herself in the kitchen. George is nowhere to be found."Again, in just a few sentences we know so much about this family and each sibling's place in it.
We see what happens to the high school football hero who can't make it in college in Favorite Son, which also has the best line in the book:
"For a certain kind of teenager, a small town is a prison. For another, it is a stage."A lonely nurse meets a handsome younger man and her life changes in Thrift. What Remains tells the sad story of Sunny Baker, the last remaining descendant of the Baker family, the founders of the Bakerton.
The story that moves me most is The Bottom of Things, which features Ray, someone who made it out of Bakerton and ended up with a good life in Houston. Ray reluctantly goes home for his parents 50th anniversary party, and feels guilty for what he left behind. His has no relationship with his sons since he divorced their mother years ago. His brother Kenny has never gotten over his time in Vietnam; it is this relationship that seems to hurt the most.
News From Heaven is about family, relationships, loyalty, guilt, and the sacrifices people make. It's about the people who live in this decaying town and how that decay affects them. As I read this, I felt like I was peeking in the windows of these people's homes and watching them live their lives. The lyrical writing soars, and I wish I was reading this again for the first time. It's one of the best books so far in 2013.
rating 5 of 5
Jennifer Haigh's website is here.
Listen to Jennifer discuss News From Heaven on Book Club Girl's Authors on Air.