Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 272 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Kent Haruf’s Benediction is the final volume in the author’s Plainsong Trilogy, which also comprises Plainsong and Eventide, two of my favourite novels from the past couple of years. All three are set in the fictional rural town of Holt, Colorado, and each is just as lovely, heartbreaking and joyful as the one that precedes it.
One last summer
In Benediction, which was recently shortlisted for the inaugural Folio Prize, we meet Dad Lewis, the owner of a local hardware store, who has terminal cancer. His last final summer is spent getting his affairs in order — making sure the business goes on without him, preferably with his somewhat reluctant adult daughter in charge — and catching up with old friends and loved ones, who visit him and his wife, offering prayers and assistance.
But as the story gently unfolds and Dad recalls incidents from his long life, we discover that he won’t be entirely at peace until he finds his son, Frank, who fled the family home as a teenager, more than 30 years ago.
Several other characters dance around the edges of this main narrative: an orphaned girl called Alice, who moves in next door to live with her grandmother; Alene and Willa, the elderly mother and adult daughter, who befriend Alice; and Reverend Rob Lyle, a new arrival in town, whose familial relationships are strained, along with the relationship he has with his congregation.
And, once again, the town of Holt, is also a character — in this case, melting in the heat of a long, hot summer, some time after 9/11, when America is mired in the “war on terror” and public suspicions are running high.
There’s a telling scene about mid-way through this book, when Reverend Lyle, who has been accused of being a terrorist sympathiser, wanders around the streets observing the residents through the windows at nightfall. He’s not stalking them or doing anything deliberately creepy. He tells the police that he simply wants to witness people’s lives — he wants to capture the “precious ordinary”.
And that’s an apt description for what Haruf achieves in this novel: he captures the precious ordinary of people leading ordinary lives in ordinary small-town America. He makes no judgement about them. He simply shows us their struggles and their small joys, he gives us their back stories and highlights the various decisions — some bad, some good — they made along the way, and he lets the reader come to their own conclusions about them.
I read the book in a kind of hypnotised wonder, not just at the beautifully clear and concise prose, but at the way in which Haruf exposes the inner-most workings of the human heart — the lies we tell ourselves to get by, the shame, the pride, the desire for connection we all feel. But what I most admire is the way he manages to wring so much emotion out of the story without it ever tipping over into sugary mawkishness. It always feels genuine and real.
I think it’s largely to do with his under-stated, limpid prose style and the simple, to-the-point dialogue between characters (of which there is much) that puts you firmly in the thick of the “action” in much the same way a good theatre production would do so.
But perhaps it is because he addresses universal themes — what it is to be a good person and to lead a good life; the importance of little kindnesses, acceptance, love and friendship; the sense of community between people and places; the need for connections, whether spiritual or sexual; what it is like to face death; and the struggle to achieve the “precious ordinary” — that makes Benediction such a wise, humane and powerful read.
Please note, even though Benediction is part of a loose trilogy, it is very much a standalone book — you do not have to read the first two to appreciate it. There’s a whole new cast of characters and only one or two passing references to those who appear in the previous two novels, so you won’t be missing out on anything if you start with this one. That said, I must warn you: if this is your first Kent Haruf novel, I’m pretty sure it won’t be your last.