BookBrowse Reviews Before We Sleep by Jeffrey Lent

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Before We Sleep

by Jeffrey Lent

Before We Sleep by Jeffrey Lent X
Before We Sleep by Jeffrey Lent
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  • Published:
    May 2017, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Zoë Fairtlough
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Filled with lush prose, this intergenerational story follows a Vermont family from World War II to the dawning of the '60s.

Katey Snow, aged seventeen, leaves home one night. "There was a void within her and one that could be filled only by heading east." At first, we're not sure why she has set off, but it transpires it's because of a secret her father has told her, and some letters her mother kept. It's the early 1960s in small-town Vermont and Katey is going to Maine to look for her father's army buddy from the Second World War.

Through Katey's and her mother Ruth's alternating perspectives and flashbacks, we're drawn into the lives of two generations, and how they're affected by war, even one fought far away from home. In Ruth's case, World War II has damaged her husband Oliver in ways that prevent him from fully participating in family life. In Katey's case, Vietnam is coloring her values and beliefs, and those of her generation.

Lent's gorgeous prose beautifully portrays each character, Ruth's changing relationship with Oliver, and the evolution of Katey during her travels and her week away from home. Through the perceptions of his wife and daughter, Oliver is finely drawn, particularly his struggle to overcome his difficulties and do some good in spite of them. After his wartime experiences in Germany, Oliver relies on his fiddle to cope. He recognizes that he is not a talented musician so he repairs the instruments. By mending them, and allowing others to play beautiful folk and bluegrass music (see 'Beyond the Book'), a part of him is also healed.

The themes throughout the novel are home, family, and the healing power of music. Ernest Behr, one of the people Katey encounters on her journey, says, "Always. Forever. As long as it's been. Music, the making of music, allows a person to express what they feel but that which worlds cannot hold. Where language fails. Music, making that, allows the soul to express itself."

But the setting is perhaps the most affecting protagonist, as it influences the actions and thoughts of each person involved. The author, Jeffrey Lent is a Vermonter born and bred, and his love of his primal landscape is evident in the lush descriptions: "Back down through a swale of puckerbrush, sumac and chokecherry, the smell of a swamp and the early summer pumping of frogs." Lent delves into details and textures in this exquisite evocation of the New England landscape, enabling us to taste foods, hear the music, and see the sky in its many forms: "…so many gray-wool fleeces piled against each other and seeming just overhead yet stretching endless as the sky spread wide and far and she realized she was almost at the end of the land."

While much of Lent's writing is rich with insights about the human condition, those who prefer a more fast-paced read may find this detailed examination of daily living less than a page-turner. Parts of the book might have benefited from a stiff edit to bring out the real nuggets of the story. But for those who do enjoy a gentle, slow amble through a character's psyche, Before We Sleep is perfect for cuddling up to under a blanket, speaking the best sentences out loud, savoring them a few sips at a time. The close reading of each beautifully crafted line, laden with soul and compassion, is its own reward. Lovers of Lent's A Slant of Night won't be disappointed with this sensitively observed story. Find a quiet corner, open the book, and lose yourself in this engaging exploration of the love that binds a family, a community, and society as a whole.

Reviewed by Zoë Fairtlough

This review is from the Before We Sleep. It first ran in the June 21, 2017 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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Beyond the Book:
  Folk and Bluegrass Music

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