BookBrowse Reviews The Signal Flame by Andrew Krivak

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The Signal Flame

by Andrew Krivak

The Signal Flame by Andrew Krivak X
The Signal Flame by Andrew Krivak
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2017, 272 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2017, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Matt Grant

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This slow-burning story shows how members of a close-knit family cope with profound loss.

The Signal Flame relates the legacy of multiple generations of the Konars, wealthy land-owners in rural Pennsylvania. It is the second chapter of a story begun with The Sojourn, a novel that was a finalist for the National Book Award. I haven't read the earlier book but still enjoyed this powerful sequel.

The Signal Flame opens in Dardan, a small town nestled in Pennsylvania's Endless Mountains. The family patriarch, Jozef Vinich, an Austro-Hungarian soldier who immigrated to America after World War I, has just died. Bohimur (Bo) Konar, the last remaining son, and his mother Hannah, absorb Jozef's loss as they reel from yet another: Sam Konar, the youngest of the family, has been missing in action in Vietnam for over a year.

In addition to Bo and Hannah, Sam left behind a pregnant fiancée, Ruth Younger, whose family has been at odds with the Konars for generations. The Youngers were once the largest land-owners in Dardan until Ruth's grandfather sold most of the holdings to Jozef to pay off gambling debts. The Youngers have always believed they were cheated out of their property, and years later, a shocking act of violence involving Bo and Ruth's parents cements the acrimony between the clans.

When Sam and Ruth started dating, Hannah considered it the height of betrayal. But now, Sam is gone and Bo and Ruth begin forming an unlikely bond over his disappearance. When Ruth suffers a devastating loss of her own, Bo and Hannah must decide if they will let Ruth into their family or if they will remain at odds with the Youngers forever.

Reading The Signal Flame is like being inside the eye of a hurricane. The story unfolds with relative calm, but death and devastation brim around the edges. It's only after reading the final page that one is aware of the emotional impact left in its wake. It's the kind of novel that gets its tenterhooks inside you and refuses to let go.

Krivak evokes, with beautiful and sparse prose, the mid-century lives of blue-collar men and women as they grapple with love, grief, and forgiveness. I have never been to the Endless Mountains, but with Krivak's descriptions, I could almost feel as if I were there. Krivak describes Bo and his father going on "walks on which they had to stop and rest often, on a lush patch of crow's-foot, or the bald dome of Summit Rocks, where they could see the most of the two-thousand-acre stretch of the Vinich land."

Save for one harrowing, breathtaking passage, not much of note "happens" in the book. Stylistically, the most interesting choice Krivak makes is eschewing the use of quotation marks. While this may be jarring, it's a mark of the author's talent that it's never unclear who is speaking. Rather than distract, the result makes the narrative feel like an old, important oral history. Instead of plot-focused twists or turns, we get a glimpse into the lives of three wounded, flawed people over the course of several years. The Signal Flame may burn slowly, but it burns hot.

Although a heavy novel—death and tragedy plague the Konars like storm clouds—The Signal Flame is ultimately a testament to hope. The book's epigraph quotes Aeschylus, the Greek father of tragedy, "So now I am still awatch for the signal-flame, the gleaming fire that is to harbinger news from Troy." But the "signal flame" of the novel's title reminds us that when it comes to missing loved ones, hope takes many forms. There is the hope that the past, and therefore its memory, will not fade away forever. But there is also the hope that the future, without them, may not be so unbearable after all.

Reviewed by Matt Grant

This review was originally published in March 2017, and has been updated for the September 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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