West of Here as a concept has a great deal going for it. Jonathan Evison’s cast is superb, the setting (Olympic Peninsula) rife with possibilities–landscape, weather, history. The events of the book center around the building of a dam (1890), then tearing it down 120 years later. We bounce back and forth between 1890 and 2006 and between a host of interesting people. Nearly every 1890 character and event has a 2006 parallel, and an aura mystery and magic surrounds the story in the persons of Sasquatch and a time-traveling acid freak who seems to more than commune with his epileptic 19th century counterpart. A great formula with some astounding and moving moments and some terrific writing. Verdant soil for some potent historical fiction, which is, of course, my thing.
However, in the end the effect for me was unsatisfying. Maybe it was that, like A Visit From the Goon Squad (WW 10/4/11), there are simply too many characters, and one can’t spend enough time with any of them to get emotionally invested. Or perhaps it’s the precise matching of the worlds of 1890 and 2006. It’s so neat, it’s almost mathematical. Until recently I might have called it “contrived,” but a friend quoted Janet Burroway as saying that if a story appears contrived, it means it’s not contrived enough. Nicely put.
So I guess I have to give West of Here lots of high and low marks and average them out, the final test being how I feel about it when I put the book on the shelf (or in this case, turn off the iPad) and walk away. Let’s say somewhere around B-/C+. Based on all the high-mark moments, I am interested in Evison’s prize-winning first book, All About Lulu. We’ll see how that turns out.