Life has been so busy lately! Work has been a bit in the way of my reading, which means I’ve been only reading a bit before bed. Anyway, I managed to finish The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah last week. I had never read anything by her before —or anything written after 1970 in a long while, for that matter—, but I really want to check The Nightingale out now.
How to best describe The Great Alone? This book is as tragic as it is hopeful. I read it because it’s about Alaska, a place that I’ve been dying to visit for two years or so. And the novel doesn’t disappoint in describing the hardships and wilderness of the Alaskan territoire. Nevertheless, the main focus of the novel is the seemingly impossible strengh and courage that people are capable of when confronted by wilderness and danger, and when motivated by love.
The plot of this novel could definitely be a thriller if it was narrated by Stephen King: an unstable father who takes his family to a remote location to “start over” and begins to slowly lose his mind. The focus of the novel is not, however, the unstable dad, but the mother and daughter who travel with him and who are extremely well-developed characters. Leni, the 13-year-old daughter, is one of the few teenagers in contemporary literature that didn’t sound fake or exasperating to me, but relatable and realistic.
Leni is dragged by her parents to a small settlement near Homer, Alaska. The many problems that her family has been going through since her dad came back from Vietnam—his alcoholism, bad temper and unemployement— seem to be maximised by the isolation, the lack of light and the hardships of the winter, a season that seems to last forever and to engulf everything in darkness in Alaska. Leni’s mother is also an unstable figure in the beginning, emotionally dependent of her husband. How the wilderness of the Alaskan landscape can break the spirits of some and make others find their own inner wilderness was, for me, the main theme of the novel. Both Leni and her mother learn to fend for themselves and each other, they come to realise their own strenght… in the most melodramatic way possible.
“Alaska isn’t about who you were when you headed this way. It’s about who you become.”Kristin Hannah, The Great Alone
Although Hannah’s novel dwells on many tragic themes: domestic violence, substance abuse, political extremism, death and loss, the strong and diverse portray of the female characters in the novel make a good counterpoint to the many catastrophes that occur along the plot. I would say this portray of women, strong women who struggle, adventure, live and love fiercely, is the most accomplished aspect of the novel. Another thing I enjoyed a lot—though it gave me the chills many times— was the beautiful yet never romanticised depiction of the Alaskan landscape and seasons.
However, I did not like the last part of the novel as much. The last hundred pages were just too melodramatic for me, many things happened and the style of the narrative was inconsistent at times. I think the last bits of the novel are too focused on making things happen to the characters, so a lot of “minor” tragedies allign around the main event of the ending, and it is just too much. Whatever greatness was accomplished in character developement throughout the first three quarters of the books just collapses in the last quarter. In fact, there were some bits of descriptive dialogue that seemed taken out of a soap opera.
Despite that, The Great Alone is a very enjoyable book, with its descriptions of the seventies fashion and haircuts, its wonderful rendering of Alaska and a sharp critic of right-wing extremism in the forgotten areas of the United States. It was a pleasure to come home to it every night (why is it so nice to read of cold nights and family tragedies from one’s own cosy bed?). I’m very much looking forward to read The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, and to visit Alaska… in the summer.
Have you read The Great Alone? If so, I would love to hear what you thought of it! I’m currently reading One Day in December by Josie Silver and finding it delightfully funny.
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