(This review originally appeared on the Relevant Magazine Web site.)
Leif Enger’s narrator, Reuben Land, wants nothing more than to breathe deeply, and Enger’s novel is just the kind of air you hope to breathe when you turn to fiction. His prose is crisp, his metaphors invigorating. That air-after-the-first-snow style and the cover, not to mention the fact that it’s set in Minnesota, evoke winter for me, which made Peace Like a River an interesting read for me last summer. Now I ought to say that when your debut novel’s dustjacket features blurbs from Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes) and Jim Harrison (Legends of the Fall), and your book has been selected as one of the best books of the year by uncounted important publications, the opinion of yet another reviewer probably makes little difference. With that caveat I’ll tighten the ropes and throw open the gate.
At the outset I should tell you that this is a great novel. It’s a great novel in the truest sense of that word, since great novels challenge our thinking, grinding and polishing the lenses through which we see life. Enger’s characters are richly textured, complex people; they’re people you know or knew, love and loved. They might even remind you of yourself. And the things they do. . . .
Like so many movie trailers these days, the flap copy gives away too much and dilutes some of the novel’s strength, stripping some of the miraculous from the carefully constructed narrative. Suffice to say, then, that this is the story of Jeremiah Land, a devout school janitor, and his three children: Davy, Reuben, and Swede. Faced with both tragedy and family crisis, they strike out on a journey worthy of the West and the Great Plains they travel. The result is surprising and troubling.
Peace Like a River is an authentic remembrance of youth and wonder and miracles—real miracles. As Reuben says, “Real miracles bother people, like strange sudden pains unknown in medical literature. . . . [A] miracle is no cute thing but more like the swing of a sword.” I was bothered by this miraculous novel. The plot’s miracles are surprising, yes, but the characters themselves—the family itself—are miracles, too. Peace is so richly written and populated with characters and situations so real that I felt those “strange sudden pains.” Enger captures the imagination and anguish of children caught between admiration for and shame of their father. I’ve read nothing like it since To Kill a Mockingbird.