Faithful Fiction: A Review of "A Land Without Sin"
This week I wrote the editor of Slant Books, Gregory Wolfe, a longtime acquaintance, and congratulated him on the vision he had helped bring to life. The occasion was my reading of A Land Without Sin, the new novel by Paula Huston published by Slant, and my message was simple.
"Thank you," I told my fellow Greg. "This is how fiction by faithful people should look."
A Land Without Sin, set in Central America in 1993, follows war photographer Eva Kovic as she attempts to find her brother Stefan, a Catholic priest who has left his post and followed—or been taken by—guerrilla fighters into the jungle. As part of her cover story, Eva takes a job as photographer for a taciturn Dutch archaeologist who has developed some radical theories about the Maya and human sacrifice. One of the great pleasures of the novel is how Huston weaves together the story of Eva's quest for her brother, her encounter with Jan, his dying wife Anne, and their son Rikki, and the research Jan is doing deep in the Central American jungle in Mayan pyramids and tombs.
The book is engaging, but it isn't easy. When about a third of the way through the book Eva says of Jan and his family, "these people are getting under my skin," I realized that they were starting to have that effect on me too, although difficult and complicated as almost every character is—especially Eva—it took that much time for me to warm to them. The obvious comparison in theme, setting, and characterization, is Graham Greene, and I'm reminded of Greene's dictum, "We would forgive everything if we knew all the facts." The more we learn about these characters, the more we are willing to forgive. What was in the mysterious box given to Stefan by his and Eva's grandfather turns out to be a real motivation for his mysterious actions. The past matters.
The depiction of the jungle is spot on, and comes from Huston's own travels there. She gets the sights, sounds, and smells, the feeling of humidity as pressure. She also demonstrates a great deal of understanding of the Mayans, of late-century Latin American politics, and of the histories of all her characters. The result is that we trust this narrator implicitly, even when we aren't yet sure that we like her, and we begin to root for her to live a life of connectedness, a life in which she begins to believe in something larger than herself.
In many novels written by a person of faith, this setup would lead to a simplistic conclusion, an affirmation of faith, a decision that somehow manages to save not just the character's soul but her life. Nothing so easy is revealed here—partly why I told Greg Wolfe that this was Christian fiction as it ought to be.
A Land Without Sin is not Christian because it eschews bad language; I was gratified to find people cursing where they ought to be cursing. It's not Christian because it eschews sinful urges, because Eva is a sexual being who longs to be sexual again. It is not Christian because its characters eschew emotional or physical violence; in some cases, they don't. It's not even Christian because its major conflict is resolved by a decision in favor of faith; in this book, it's the faithful actions of Stefan that most shape the conclusion.
All the usual things that define Christian fiction don't apply here, which is, as, I said, a good thing. There is no such thing as a land without sin, as the book well knows, and to pretend otherwise in one's fiction is to tell a lie.
But A Land Without Sin is deeply and beautifully Christian because it honestly and powerfully treats the great human themes—love, faith, family, forgiveness, faith, good and evil, transformation—that are also the great Christian themes.
There is no Kumbaya moment at the end of the novel. The past is not erased. The world is not redeemed.
But some of the people change, in those small and believable ways that lend us hope. Eva is a different person—a better person—as a result of the events of the novel, as traumatic and difficult as they are. And I leave the book as a reader with the hope that I can transfer that transformation in some way to my own life.
As a novelist, I am oft reminded of a response a reader sent to my first novel, Free Bird: "For a couple of days, it made me want to be a better person." Each time I write, that response is somewhere in the back of my head. And while I'm trying to tell the most beautiful, most interesting tale I can imagine, I'm also hoping that when someone reads it, they might see themselves in the story enough that it makes them imagine being somehow different, better, transformed.
I can't say if this is what was running through Paula Huston's mind when she was writing A Land Without Sin.
But I can say that this is the effect it had on me—and might very well have on you when you read it.
Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post, Salon.com, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.
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