A fascinating meditation on war, memory and the nature of the soul–as compelling as it is unexpected.
One wouldn’t think it possible to create a fascinating novel by combining municipal politics in Oregon with early-20th-century trench warfare, but Webb pulls off this unlikely feat in a strong piece of new fiction. Leon Rose runs a nursery in the town of Elder, but he lives part of his life in vivid streams of memory that float up to him from the deep well of the past. Vibrant, preternatural reveries pull Leon back to World War I-era Europe, where the love of a startling beauty and the horrors of the foxhole animate a moving alternate life. The protagonist’s intense participation in these reminiscences eventually–and surprisingly–compels him to enter a mayoral election in his hometown. But what is the nature of these recollections? Are they his or someone else’s? Is he going insane? Siam explores the possibility of the soul’s continuity, and wonders, in fascinating ways, how history and memory drive us in the present moment. The book weighs in at a shade over 600 pages, and that bulk sometimes feels like too much. A little less Oregon couldn’t have hurt Webb’s lengthy â€œvoyage,” and a streamlined novel would have been more accessible and exciting. But even in the slower parts of this extraordinary narrative, the author draws out his tale with a sure hand. He strikes the correct balance between opulent descriptive passages and stark dialogue, not only delivering pitch-perfect writing, but melding the disparate parts of his fictional world into an entrancing and thoroughly innovative whole. Further, Webb imbues accounts of military action, electoral politics and business dealings alike with a taut excitement that drives his reader ever onward, from past to present to future.
A surprising delight.