September 8, 2014

"I Never, Ever Backed Down."

Neverhome by Laird Hunt

Release Date: September 9, 2014
Publisher: Hachette | Little Brown
Pages: 256 pages
Source & Format: Publisher at BEA; ARC
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Summary (from Goodreads)
An extraordinary novel about a wife who disguises herself as a man and goes off to fight in the Civil War.

She calls herself Ash, but that's not her real name. She is a farmer's faithful wife, but she has left her husband to don the uniform of a Union soldier in the Civil War. Neverhome tells the harrowing story of Ash Thompson during the battle for the South. Through bloodshed and hysteria and heartbreak, she becomes a hero, a folk legend, a madwoman and a traitor to the American cause.

Laird Hunt's dazzling new novel throws a light on the adventurous women who chose to fight instead of stay behind. It is also a mystery story: why did Ash leave and her husband stay? Why can she not return? What will she have to go through to make it back home?

Thoughts on Neverhome
I've always been fascinated by the Civil War, so I automatically want to read a book when I find out it's set during that time period. I first heard about Neverhome at BEA because it was one of the featured Adult Buzz titles. The premise reminded me of I Shall Be Near to You, one of my favorite books of the year, so I knew I had to take this one home with me.

Neverhome is the story of a woman who disguises herself as man and goes off to fight in the Civil War in her husband's place. Going by the name Ash Thompson, Neverhome follows the woman who, as the summary states, "becomes a hero, a folk legend, a madwoman and a traitor to the American cause." I found these words so intriguing - there's a sense of mystery to them. What does Ash do while she's away fighting? How does she become a hero and a traitor? And why is she the one who goes off to fight in the first place?

The opening line was so promising: "I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic." It highlights my favorite element of the book: the voice. While I didn't end up loving Neverhome, I have to admire the way Hunt captures Ash's voice and tells her story. Another example: "I did not know what was coming any better than they did but it did not feel like a thing to rattle happy at the dark about." Although Ash wasn't a real woman, she's inspired by the women who did fight as men during the Civil War. The writing is sparse, simple and direct, but I found it so fitting for the story Hunt is telling and the character at its center.

I felt like I could hear Ash speaking as I read the book and imagined myself sitting down beside her and listening as she told me of this adventure from long ago. While I liked that the words almost seemed like they would be spoken aloud, I also found that the story meandered at times - much like a story does when someone is telling it to you. The pace is very slow and there's not a long happening, even though it's set during a war. It becomes a little harder to follow, in the same way that Ash herself remains elusive.

Because of that distance, I also could never really connect emotionally to the story. It's also one of the reasons that I think I struggled to understand Ash's motivations. I never quite understood what prompted her to enlist or the purpose behind why she was doing or saying some of the things that she did. The characters were one of my absolute favorite parts of I Shall Be Near to You, and I couldn't help comparing them as I read. Unfortunately for Neverhome, there was just no contest.

However, the setting itself was depicted in a very memorable and moving way. I felt like I could "see" through Ash's eyes, which I certainly appreciated. When I think solely about the voice and setting of Neverhome, I feel much more favorably about it. But then I think about Ash and the story itself, and I have to admit that I don't have strong feelings for the book overall. A few elements of the story frustrated me, but most of my frustration goes back to feeling like Ash was disconnected from the events she was describing.

Finally, there are some surprises in the final pages that I really didn't see coming. For me, it undermined the story that I'd just read and left me somewhat frustrated overall. It's an interesting choice to make as an author, and I can respect it from that angle, but I wasn't a fan. It can make for some interesting discussion though!

Neverhome's main character was memorable for her voice and her place in the world she inhabited, but I never really connected to her or the story. Because I was emotionally disconnected from what was taking place, I never felt quite invested in the ending - only to find it go in a direction I didn't see coming. Sadly, Neverhome just wasn't quite right for me. I wonder if I might have liked it better if Rosetta's from I Shall Be Near to You wasn't still echoing in my mind, reminding me of what it means when a character feels so real that you'll never forget them. I'd likely only recommend this book to fans of Civil War fiction for the strong setting and details related to the time period.

So Quotable
"I wanted, I told her, to lie under the stars and smell different breezes. I wanted to drink different waters, feel different heats. Stand with my comrades atop the ruin of old ideas. Walk forward with a thousand others. Plant my boot and steel my eye and not run."
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration. This did not affect my opinion of the book or my review.

4 comments:

  1. I have to say, I don't like when books have too similar a premise -- it's pretty impossible for one to not eclipse the other. When there is so much in common, it is so easy to compare instead of viewing it as a separate entity -- I will definitely be trying I Shall Be Near to You instead :)

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  2. WE NEED TO PLAN BETTER, HANNAH. Oh can you imagine what this buddy read would have been like! Snarkity snark snark.

    You said everything I wanted to say, but far more eloquently. I tried, I really did, but in the end it was just rage, so bravo. That blurb? Totally false. It's never explained why Ash went off to fight (because her dead mother told her to??). I don't understand the whole traitor part..she wasn't a spy! A hero? Why? For giving her jacket to the girl who lost her shirt?

    I never imagined a war novel would be so dull.

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  3. I'm such a sucker for books where women dress up as men to go off and do things that defy the gender expectations of their time. Sad that this disappointed though, the couple of quotes you included are beautiful. I kind of want to try it anyway (and might), but if I feel the same emotional disconnect you have I'll be unlikely to finish.

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  4. Neverhome has such an intriguing summary, and I agree with Heidi when she says that the quotes you've included are lovely (because I love the way they read, odd as that might sound). However, I just read I Shall Be Near to You, which I really liked, so I was wary of this - and the discussion we had about it has me inclined to leave it be for now. I'm glad that you liked the voice + setting, even though you wound up not loving this overall!

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