The Outside Lands by Hannah Kohler

Review published on June 17, 2016.

In November 1963, on Kip’s fourteenth birthday, his mother, as she had done for every one of his birthdays since he was eight, took him downtown to Sears Fine Food for his annual treat of a stack of eighteen pancakes. When they left the store she absent-mindedly stepped into the road and was killed by a cable car. Her sudden death left him and his nineteen year old sister Jeannie feeling bereft and rudderless. The fact that on the following day President Kennedy was assassinated made them feel that in many ways their loss was diminished. Feeling adrift in an unimagined world, Jeannie gives up her place at secretarial school and becomes a waitress in a diner. She meets a doctor there and when she becomes pregnant, this being the 1960s, there seems no alternative but to marry, even though his parents feel she isn’t good enough for their son. She finds it hard to adjust to the life she finds herself in and forms relationships which will, ultimately, change her life yet again.

In the meantime Kit gradually goes off the rails and a few years later, following a court appearance, the judge presents him with two options, either finish high-school or enlist. He decides to join the Marines and is soon sent to Vietnam where he finds it difficult to cope, not only with the violence of war but also with the almost daily humiliations which seem to be part of life in the forces. Before long he too has committed an act which has life-changing implications, not only for him but for many other people.

Set in California, against the background of the massive social and political changes of the 1960s and the horrors of the Vietnam War, this story follows the two siblings as they attempt to find meaning in their lives. The narrative is told from alternating perspectives and, because of the skill with which the author handled these shifts in focus, this enabled the story to alternate between events in America and in Vietnam in a way which inexorably added depth to all the characters and to the development of the story. She created flawed, complex and entirely credible characters and set them in the context of an equally believable social and political background – not one of her characters felt superfluous to the developing story. Her exploration of the ongoing consequences of choices made for very powerful and affective reading. She captured so vividly and evocatively the aspirations, the fears, and the disappointments of this turbulent era as well as the effects such rapid change can have, both on society in general and on individuals in particular. I think that her handling of the build up of tension as the story progressed was pitch-perfect; I could hardly bear to put the book down and, throughout my reading, often felt compelled to re-read passages because of the powerful impact of her character development as well as her elegant turns of phrase. Her ability to make her characters and their dilemmas come alive is impressive; I feel I will be haunted by Jeannie and Kit for a long time. Although the story is in many ways quite dark, I never felt that it was devoid of a belief in the resilience of human beings – although must admit that I did appreciate the occasional moments of humour which she introduced!

I think this is an outstanding debut novel, one which should attract literary acclaim and one which is certainly deserving of awards. I am already eagerly anticipating this author’s next book!

Linda Hepworth 5/5

The Outside Lands by Hannah Kohler
Picador 978-1-5098-0210-4 hbk May 2016

dir91 Jan pbk?

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