‘Pastoral’ by André Alexis

Book Reviews

Pastoral coverReviewed by Will J. Fawley

Pastoral is broken into five sections inspired by the movements of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral Symphony. This structure goes much deeper than just the number of movements, as the pattern of certain elements in the book follows the pattern of the music. The title is not only an homage to a masterpiece of classical music and a literary genre, but also takes on a religious meaning, as it comes from the root word “pastor” as well. In this way, the title is a perfect marriage of the two major conflicting themes of the novel, God and nature.

The novel begins with Father Christopher Pennant, who moves to the secluded town of Barrow for his first parish assignment, where he begins to be troubled by questions of God and nature. Pennant’s struggle reaches a crescendo when he witnesses a series of three miracles. More on that later.

Meanwhile, a love triangle is spinning out of control in the town of Barrow. Liz Denny wants a simple, loving Barrow life with her fiancé Robbie Meyers, but he claims that while he loves Liz, he also loves Jane Richardson and cannot possibly choose just one girl. All three characters have fully realized motivations and struggles, but the most interesting aspect of these characters is the contrast between the women– one who wants to settle down in barrow, the other who desires something more, bigger, beyond Barrow, which mirrors Father Pennant’s desire for something beyond the physical world.

The setting and tone often feel old fashioned, like a James Fenimore Cooper novel, or some other early American writing from centuries ago. Perhaps Fenimore Cooper is a bad example because this book is very Canadian. Margaret Atwood says that Canadian Literature is survivalist literature. But maybe it doesn’t have to be that extreme. Sometimes the wilderness itself isn’t what’s brutal, it is ourselves, it is God and our desire for and frustration with connecting to anything in this world or the next. Nature is so prominent in this book that reference to the modern world is often jarring, reminding us that while inspired by the past, this story belongs to the present.

Now back to the miracles. Father Pennant’s faith is shaken when he witnesses a series of three miracles.

After the first miracle, a multitude of moths that fly in complex patterns, he is shocked and confused by the prospect of something beyond nature trying to communicate with him.

Father Pennant had never seen nor ever heard of anything like this. He was at first puzzle, unable to quite believe what had happened…It was as if some being had spoken to him in an extraordinary language and expected him to understand. But, if so, who had sent the insects to ‘speak’ with him?

No, there had to be something wrong with the moths.

Father Pennant, a man of devout faith, is so shocked by the possibility of God’s immediate presence in the world that he instantly dismisses the idea that God could be sending him a message.

The second miracle occurs when Father Pennant sees someone walking on water. He is so disturbed by what he sees that he thinks it must be the work of Satan. Again, it must be anything but God, the one thing he wants most desperately to connect with.

These first two miracles were as disappointing to me as a reader as they were to Father Pennant because they were presented and explained away all within a few pages. The third miracle, however, (a talking sheep) is given room to grow in Father Pennant’s mind and the mind of the reader, making it seem that the first two were merely buildup.

Anyway, this doubt, this barrier between humanity and the divine is what drives most of the novel. Father Pennant is both intrigued and annoyed by the miracles. He desperately desires a connection with God, yet he rejects signs of his possible presence in the world.

Father Pennant is not the only person in Barrow who struggles with forces beyond the mundane. The men in Caretaker Lowther Williams’ family have a history of falling victim to a seemingly supernatural occurrence.

For generations, the men in Lowther’s family had been dying at the age of sixty-three. Lowther’s father, grandfather, great grandfather…It was taken by most in his family to be a curse. Lowther’s mother had seen it that way, as had his father. But Lowther took the matter differently. He took it as a promise, God’s word.

Lowther anticipates and even expects his death to come at sixty-three. That knowledge of the length of his mortality shapes his life with a certainty Father Pennant struggles to understand and emulate as he seeks to put that unquestioning faith to work in his own life.

Pastoral is full of contradictions and opposing forces. It introduces big ideas and then steps away from them. Father Pennant is shaken by an other-worldly event, and then a couple pages later a logical explanation is given. It seems like these would be opportunities for Father Pennant to really examine himself and his beliefs. While there is some questioning going on in these instances, it is quick and quickly dismissed, making these moments of intensity feel rushed, perhaps in order to squeeze the magical number of three into the book. Three miracles. Three lovers.

Maybe the experience is meant to evoke Father Pennant’s disappointment with the divine. Either way, it is an interesting read, but isn’t as gripping as some of Alexis’s other theologically inspired works, such as the novella A, in which the main character comes face to face with the divine.

Despite a potential missed opportunity to dig deeper into Father Pennant’s struggles, Pastoral is a thought-provoking read that examines a trinity of themes: humanity, nature, and the divine. Alexis’ work is fresh and inspired, and while it is a homage to another time and genre, it also carves a unique place for itself in contemporary Canadian literature.

Coach House | 168 pages | $17.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1552452868

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Will J. Fawley

Will holds an MFA from George Mason University where he was assistant fiction editor for Phoebe Journal of Literature and Art. His short fiction recently appeared in Sassafras Literary Magazine and his poetry has appeared in Literati Magazine. Will worked on his first novel with Duncan Thornton during the 2013 Sheldon Oberman Mentorship Program.