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Book Review: In the Distance by Hernán Díaz (2/5)

22 Sep

I had no idea what to expect out of this book because, as usual, I didn’t read anything about it before picking it up. I liked to do that with book club books because I like being surprised. Maybe I wouldn’t have been waiting for something to happen for so long if I’d known that this was a journey novel and that there wasn’t going to be a central action story. Maybe, for once, this worked against me.

Cover image via Amazon

In the Distance by Hernán Díaz

Summary from Amazon:

A young Swedish immigrant finds himself penniless and alone in California. The boy travels East in search of his brother, moving on foot against the great current of emigrants pushing West. Driven back again and again, he meets naturalists, criminals, religious fanatics, swindlers, Indians, and lawmen, and his exploits turn him into a legend. Diaz defies the conventions of historical fiction and genre, offering a probing look at the stereotypes that populate our past and a portrait of radical foreignness.

This book just didn’t work for me. I kept thinking something would change and I’d start to appreciate something I’d missed or I’d become interested in a new character, but it never happened. Håkan didn’t even make a strong impression on me. This book was very episodic and that’s not a structure that I usually like. I wanted more closure from the people he met along the way or for someone to come back into play late in the story to complete a storyline. I felt perpetually let down.

There were very few of these characters that I felt were realistic. Lorimer and Asa are the only people I liked and didn’t seem like they stepped out of a movie. The corrupt sheriff was probably similar to other men in the era, but he still came across as cartoonish. Håkan didn’t seem realistic at all and I felt he lived up to and deserved his legendary notoriety.  This is part of what made it so hard to like the book.

Lorimer was my favorite character. He was likable and smart. Even though he did some dumb things and put himself and others at risk, he had a vision he was trying to achieve and he went for it. He cared about other people, which was rare for someone in this book. I gained a lot of respect for him when he helped the native people who had been attached and learned from their elder. 

Asa was the most relatable character to me, but some of his character development was a bit unbelievable. He had a soft heart and I liked that about him. He was able to see the good in Håkan and was angry about him being mistreated. However, I didn’t understand why he had such a soft spot for Håkan. Håkan never denied the brutal things he was accused of because they were true. What made him fall for a man who never spoke and was known to commit murder? He put a lot on the line to free Håkan and I didn’t see his motivation.

Hernan Diaz
Image via the book website

The storyline with Asa and Håkan’s time in the desert were my favorite parts of the book. I liked Håkan alone and how he described his life at that time. I also liked to see him happy, even if it was fleeting, with Asa.

The time Håkan spent with the woman bothered me the most. I didn’t understand the motivation for taking him prisoner and what her larger issue was. She was angry but how she used Håkan was inexcusable to me. The fact that this plotline ended so quickly and violently made me dislike it even more. It probably didn’t help that this was early in the book and put a bitter taste in my mouth for the remainder of the story.

The audiobook was narrated by Peter Berkrot. While listening, I didn’t notice anything that bothered me about his performance. His pace was slow and he expressed Håkan’s sense of wonder of America well. It wasn’t until someone pointed out at our book club meeting that Berkrot’s voice wasn’t a good fit for the story that I realized I agreed. It was just a bit off.

Part of what turns me off to episodic stories is that they seem to lack an overarching theme. In this book, Håkan is trying to find his place in a new country. He tries working, following someone else, and striking out on his own. None of them seem to work for him. In the end, America isn’t for him and he decides that rather than try a different part of the country, he’s going to head home. I was a little lost about the theme here and the relevance of a lot of Håkan’s stops along the way.

Writer’s Takeaway: This book was widely well-received, so maybe I’m missing something. The lack of return to previous themes, characters, and events is what frustrated me with this book. It’s the old adage that if you introduce a gun in act one, it better go off before the play ends. I didn’t think this book delivered on that promise to the reader and I was frustrated for much of the book.

Not a hit for me. Two out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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In the Distance (Diaz) | BookReviewsbyCharles 

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