In Ulland’s debut novel, a summer in the country changes everything for two brothers.
Upon hearing that their grandfather is gravely ill, young narrator Luke and his older brother, Stephen, travel with their parents to their grandparents’ countryside home. The boys have fond memories of earlier trips made when their grandfather was in vigorous health, but the familiar house is now a grim place, suspended in the anticipation of the old man’s death. The nearness of tragedy can’t dim the boys’ playful spirits for long, however, and they’re soon filling the days with exploration or simple goofing off. In graceful, understated passages, the author captures the structureless idyll of the boys’ summer days, only slightly marred by occasional idiomatic expressions like “freak out” or “get a grip.” Stephen’s inner demons lead to the tragedy at the center of the novel, and Luke—entering the book’s eponymous broken world—embarks on a subtle, intelligently rendered coming-out story in the narrative’s second half. Touchingly, Luke is more confused than anybody: “He would fight back a stinging sensation that came from behind his eyes like little nicks on the optic nerve, tears that refused to form but ached nonetheless; words that refused to form, but desperately wanted to speak themselves.” The book’s third act will therefore strike many readers as extremely familiar: feigned interest in transitory girlfriends, the discovery of Hart Crane’s poetry in a bookstore, the encounter with a helpful older man at the YMCA, etc. Yet the material is saved from seeming hackneyed by the strength and insight of Ulland’s prose, which carefully details Luke’s slow exit from the aftermath of Stephen’s fate, when “everything stopped and he couldn’t grow anymore.” The catharsis reached at the book’s conclusion feels well-earned.
A sensitive, affecting debut.