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The Gospel of Winter cover image 198x300 The Gospel of WinterThe Gospel of Winter, Brendan Kiely
Margaret K. McElderry (Simon & Schuster), January 2014
Reviewed from ARC

It’s so hard when a book is completely admirable and worthy of discussion and yet I just can’t like it. Because now I’m torn between wanting lots of discussion on this and also wanting to move on to a book I can like more.

Winter and the Connecticut suburbs, man. It’s all misery.

So, for starters, a small spoiler: the flap copy made it sound like this was mostly about the abuse Aidan suffers at the hands of Father Greg, and that the climax would be the moment he realizes that it is, in fact, abuse. That’s like saying Jenny Hubbard’s And We Stay is about a school shooting. This is actually a book about the aftermath of abuse, the lingering psychological damage, the pain that doesn’t stop even when the physical trauma does.

And as a psychological study, this is very powerful. Aidan is seriously damaged by the relationship with Father Greg, and the way in which he wants to pretend it didn’t happen and sticks to that even as he connects with Mark and James, who are also victims, is a heart-breaking look at a believable response to trauma. Setting it against the breaking of the news stories about sexual abuse in the church (the 2002 Boston diocese headlines) ensures that this doesn’t seem too topical, because it’s historical fiction rather than contemporary fiction; this is an exploration of that moment when the secrets became public and a study of what happens for Aidan when his shame can’t be buried because it’s being played out in every newspaper and on every tv station. This is rich material to work with and it’s handled with grace — no wonder this netted three stars and a blurb from Colum McCann, not exactly known for blurbing YA.

So much for the content, now for the writing, which all those starred reviews praised highly and which is what should put this on the table for serious discussion. I’ll confess, it’s a little self-consciously literary for my tastes — it has that worked over, every word placed just so feeling that I find distancing. I can admire this, and recognize the skill on display — the way the physical landscape and weather reflect Aidan’s emotional landscape, the way it’s just a little stylized so that it’s clear how artificial this world of extreme wealth is (the way Aidan talks to his mother — the way he calls her “Mother” always, never anything less formal — is a perfect example of this.) This is technically impressive, tightly executed, literary writing. I could, in short, teach this text, which is something I’ve said before often correlates with Printzliness, and my dislike of this kind of self-conscious writing is preference, not critique. But that precise, almost cool writing style makes this a hard book to connect to on an emotional level, because it’s writing designed to hold the reader at arm’s length, and I wonder if that will hurt its chances — will anyone be willing to fight for this? And if they are, can they fight through the biggest objective flaw of the text, Sophie and Josie’s charcaterization? They have about as much character and agency as paper dolls. In a book with such nuanced characters (including the adult women and even Elena’s daughter Teresa, in her 30 seconds in the book), they way two of the three people who become Aidan’s friends and who are so pivotal to his potential healing are only sketches stands out — more than it might in a different book — and was definitely detrimental to the novel as a whole.

This is flying low in terms of buzz, possibly because the topic makes it a hard sell, but despite my lack of enjoyment reading this I do think it’s one worth a close look. So take that look and then let us know what you think.

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