I’ve been fortunate in 2013 to enjoy a number of terrific books. Books that brought a smile to my face and put joy in my heart. Books that I can hand to anybody and say, ‘read this, you’ll love it.’ The Round House isn’t one of those books. But it might just be the best novel I’ve read so far this year. The stories I’ve gravitated towards in 2013 have tended to be contemporary, set in the UK and been about the absurdities of modern life. They have often mirrored my own existence. The Round House is far away from this.
Set in the recent past, 1988, in the American Midwest, The Round House opens with a rape and attempted murder. The victim is a Native American, Geraldine, mother of thirteen-year-old Joe. The narrative follows Joe as he and the rest of his community try to come to terms with the attack. It’s a slow meandering tale, but is incisive in its examination of crimes big and small.
There are many layers and nuances to this novel. At the highest level it’s a murder-mystery, but its true strengths lie much deeper than that. There is an examination of the complicated land politics that govern Indian reservations; the inconsistent rules that decide which law enforcement body can try and punish criminals. This problem and its deep ramifications provide the novel’s moral and ethical backbone. The role of Catholic missionaries for good and ill is looked at, as is the way in which Catholicism has become ingrained into Indian traditions. It’s a fascinating portrayal of an ancient culture vying for recognition and acceptance in the modern world.
Beyond the tribe’s spiritual culture, it is also revealing about the mundane aspects of reservation life. Families, food, jobs, law and order, all artfully revealed. This gentle reverence for life’s small events put me very much in mind of the prose of Anne Tyler. Most of all however, this is coming of age tale. His mother’s terrible ordeal flings Joe from the border of adolescence deep into adulthood. He and his friends criss-cross the reservation hunting for clues to the identity of his mother’s attacker. Their interactions, as a unit, and their individual relationships are reminiscent of Stephen King’s story ‘Stand by Me’. The smooth innocence of childhood rubbing against the harsh realities of adulthood is expertly portrayed. It’s a beautiful evocation of the journey from boy to man.
This is a novel light on plot, yet strong on story. It’s characters are a beautifully drawn ensemble cast of heroes and villains, shirkers and grafters, friends and enemies. They made reservation life almost tangible to me, despite being cosseted here in middle England. From beginning to end, this is a powerful novel, with an important message. I didn’t always enjoy reading The Round House, but its quality shone throughout. This is a book to immerse yourself in, soak up its characters, their pain and their victories. High quality fiction and highly recommended.