Published by St. Martin's Press
Publication date: February 6th 2018
Genres: Coming-of-age, Fiction
Well, this is a little bit awkward. I’m one of the hordes of readers who raved about Hannah’s last book, The Nightingale, and yet I have to report that with only 80 pages left (out of over 400) I abandoned her latest, The Great Alone. I had simply gone as far with the novel as I was able to go and despite being in the midst of some high drama I didn’t care what happened next. And that may be the problem—there is a lot of high drama in this novel.
The Great Alone is set in the 1974 and references the state of Alaska where 13-year-old Leni and her parents, Ernt and Cora, move after her father decides it’s the place they need to be for them to live life the way he wants. A Vietnam Vet and POW, Ernt is not able to keep a job and so they’ve moved numerous times since during Leni’s school years. Not surprisingly, the last thing Leni wants to do is leave her new school in Seattle and head to state with nothing to recommend it to a female teenager.
Arriving in the village of Kaneq (population 30-ish), which is accessible by ferry only, they start to realize how far off the grid they’re going. There is no real school, no grocery store, and their home is still miles away. When they find it, it is a two room shack with no water or electricity. Thankfully, it is summer and through hard work, long northern days, and help from friendly neighbors, they establish a homestead and are on their way to preparing for winter—something they’ve been repeatedly warned about. More importantly, Ernt is calm and happy, busy teaching Cora and Leni how to shoot and hunt.
Unfortunately, winter arrives and things start to go downhill for the family and as they do, so does Ernt’s stability. Cora is no longer able to quiet his mind and he reverts to abusive and erratic behavior. In a small cabin there is no longer any way for Leni to avoid knowing what her father does to her mother, but when confronted, Cora defends, and continues to defend, Ernt even as things spiral out of control. As the cracks are appearing in Ernt’s behavior so too do they appear in my attitude towards The Great Alone. Cora’s beliefs read as pure narcissism and delusion—‘only I can help him’ and he would never hurt Leni, he’ll stop, he loves me. I have sympathy for anyone with PTSD but have a hard time understanding a mother who puts herself ahead of her child. Because, of course, Ernt, and the novel, are heading towards Leni getting hurt. There’s a lot of dysfunction in this family—namely a mother who is being abused by her husband and uses guilt to keep her teenage daughter from leaving the situation or getting help. A situation that she herself will never leave even when husband brutalizes her. At seventeen, Leni gets it:
…suddenly Leni understood the reality of her world, the truth that Alaska, in all its beautiful harshness, had revealed. They were trapped, by environment and finances, but mostly by the sick, twisted love that bound her parents together.
Hannah does a beautiful job rendering Alaska in all its wild and fearsome beauty, but in the same way the snow piles up in January so too does the drama in The Great Alone. Just one or two of the situations Hannah spins would be more than enough to keep the tension running through the novel. Instead, the trauma rabbit hole was so deep I gave up on the book. I was done and the element of surprise had been played so often I would not have blinked if Pennywise the Clown tried to drag Leni down a sewer. Nor would I have cared, which sounds harsh, but I simply could not go any further with the plotlines that were in play. Having said that, everyone’s tolerance for drama is different. Hannah has a wonderful way with words so if you like a lot of plot The Great Alone might be perfect winter reading.
Addendum: After writing this review and getting it ready to go online I decided I needed to actually finish the novel. I didn’t do it because I thought there was anything that could change my opinion, but I thought it might be mitigated somewhat. That didn’t happen. Instead, the ending of The Great Alone felt like something from Disney—which is great if that’s what you need from your fiction, but left me feeling completely and utterly cheated of any kind of nuance and drowning in sentimentality. It may be that The Nightingale was a one-off and Hannah is not my style of author.