Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Severe Mercy

Once again, I am being lazy and kind of repeating my Goodreads review here.  But, in my defense, I did write a long review of this book in Goodreads, so there.

A beautiful story about love, faith, and loss.  Vanauken has a unique style of writing that really creates his experiences for the reader in ways that I rarely see in books.  If the book were fiction, I think that may have made it kind of irritating.  As a true story, however, his style (at once rich, beautiful, vivid, albeit a bit laborious at times) really allows the reader to see right into his experience in a way that few memoirs accomplish.  (*As a side note, I have to say that I did not really feel that his writing was overly laborious.  I actually quite enjoyed reading his writing.)  There are times where you can really feel what he felt as you read, which can be somewhat exhausting, and it is something you have to put effort into.  To me, this aspect of his writing made this book incredibly human.  He did not shy away from honesty about his own weaknesses, and he sets up his experiences in such a way that you feel present with him in that moment.  This means that this does not feel nearly as much like a memoir looking back as it does a story.  Vanauken kept journals and other records of his life with Davy (his wife), and the way he writes about his experiences captures the feel of the moment rather than being overly circumspect about his life experiences. 

Because of this style of writing, I think it is really important when reading this not to assume that Vanauken is lauding any particular view over another at any one time throughout.  If you fall into a trap of thinking he is preaching a particular way of life too early on in the book, then you'll miss out on experiencing his experiences with him as you read and watching him grow as he grows through his experiences, and you'll give up before you realize that his views as a young lover and his self-congratulatory manner of expressing himself isn't the whole story. 

Vanauken has written this book in such a way that every experience feels present at the time that you read it, which really does allow you to feel it in a different way than if you knew which ideas about love and life will mature or change over time.  Once in a while he mentions a distinction of his early life with his wife as being when they were "pagans," but there is never more than a small hint at how certain events will affect their choices and beliefs in any particular moment until you get to the moment of the change.  Rather than feeling purely as if Vanauken is writing from a state of remembrance (even though he starts out that way - which was one of the slower, yet really fantastically described, parts of the book), it feels as if he is giving you an insight into his experience and his mind at the very moment he lived it.  This can be annoying for some people if you never get to the moments that mature and change him later on.  I found the last couple of chapters to be the most poignant in terms of understanding the events of the earlier chapters differently by virtue of the author's gained experience and life lived in the interim.  And, it is quite amazing how much insight into his own character he draws from his yearning to understand and give meaning to a tragic loss.

If there is one thing that I would say to anyone who is thinking about reading this book it is to make sure you make it to the end.  Even if you have to skip some of the beginning to do it.  The beginning feels pretty dense and slow-going for some, mostly because his descriptions are so rich and he spends so much time on them, but the book never comes together until the end.  If you stop too soon, not only will you not have the whole story, but you won't have the complete feelings, thoughts, and insights of Vanauken on the experiences you are reading.

I loved several things about this book and I simply can't write them all.  One was Vanauken's constantly evolving friendship with C. S. Lewis.  I find it worth noting that Vanauken states that his friend through his grief was C. S. Lewis, in spite of (or perhaps because of) Lewis' frankness, honesty, and severity with him.  Though Lewis is kind, interested, and understanding of Vanauken's emotional state during his grief, he does not indulge him in it.  Lewis tells Vanauken honestly and yet with care and concern what he sees Vanauken relating to him.  This aspect of their relationship is what Vanauken finally says caused him to truly love Lewis all the more.

Finally, the value placed on actively protecting relationships is, I think, important, regardless of whether or not you agree with Vanauken's and his wife's particular methods and/or philosophies at the time that they initially create and describe them.  Oh, I wish I could say more, but I don't want to ruin it.  For this part to really come together and work for me, I simply had to read to the end of the book.

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