Oliver Loving by Stefan Merrill Block

Review published on March 2, 2018.

Once upon a time there was a boy who fell through a crack in time but he didn’t fall all the way.

Oliver Loving, a studious, shy gentle seventeen year old, was persuaded by his father to attend the high school’s annual dance. His initial reluctance had been overcome because he hoped to be able to see Rebekkah Sterling, a classmate he had become romantically obsessed with. It proved to be a fateful decision because a disturbed ex-student, Hector Espina Jr, an American born Mexican, also decided to go to the school that night, armed with a rifle and a hand gun. In just a few moments he killed four people, three students and a teacher, and wounded several others before killing himself. One of the wounded was Oliver who had been shot in the head. For him, his family and for everyone in the small town of Bliss, Texas, life had irrevocably changed. Now in a coma, Oliver had indeed become the “boy who fell through a crack in time” – neither here nor there, but in someplace in-between.

As the tenth anniversary of the shooting approaches Oliver remains paralysed and unresponsive in an assisted care facility. His medical team believe there is no hope, that he can’t improve because he is in a permanent vegetative state. However, his mother, Eve, who continues to visit six days a week, is convinced that he is still “in there”, aware but locked in. Whatever the brain scans appear to show to the contrary, she will not give up hoping that one day Oliver will find a way to communicate. Struggling with severe depression, she is estranged from her husband Jed, an alcoholic, unsuccessful artist, and her younger son, Charlie. He has moved to New York to try to escape the dysfunctional family dynamics and the ever-present shadow cast by his elder brother’s condition. However, having read some of his brother’s journals and poetry he wants to tell Oliver’s story, believing that by doing so he will be able to make sense of something which feels so senseless. Rebbekah, who was not harmed in the shooting, is, initially, a shadowy figure in the story but is seen, particularly by Charlie, as holding the key to the motivation for Hector’s actions. As the story unfolds they both return to Bliss during the weeks leading up to the anniversary.

The story, told from the alternating perspectives of Oliver and these four main characters, explores their struggles in the aftermath of this devastating, truly life-changing tragedy. It also reflects on the impact on the community and the ways in which simmering tensions are reignited as people look for who to blame in order to try to make sense of what has happened. In fact the identity of the killer has always been known known but it is his motivation which remains a mystery; the fact that he is a “Latino” serves to fan the flames of the already existing racial tensions in Bliss. There are so many unanswered questions and few answers but it very soon becomes clear that everyone is concealing something and, layer by layer, these withholdings and secrets are exposed as the story unfolds.

This is a beautifully written novel which deals with the raw emotions which affect everyone involved. Such tragedies are in the headlines for days but then the public moves on, giving little or no thought to the people whose lives have been directly affected; people for whom the pain of loss and grief will be ever present in their lives. From the moment I started reading I felt immersed in the conflicting emotions experienced by each of the characters, as well as their respective struggles to find ways of moving forward with their lives. The author captured so powerfully that it wasn’t just Oliver whose life had been so confined and limited by the tragedy, but that each of the characters’ lives had, in one way or another, also been limited as a result of it; their capacity to live life to the full diminished by the horrific experience. To some extent they all struggled with a sense of guilt that they should have been able to do something to stop what happened on that fateful night. It is also a story which reflects on the very essence of what it means to be alive, to be dead, or to occupy a space somewhere in-between. I think the horror of being in a “locked-in” state is something which fills most people with dread and this story brought that fear to life in a vivid and disturbing way – even now, days after finishing the novel, I still feel haunted by that idea.

I was so impressed by the way in which the author managed to tell such a sad, disturbing story without any mawkish sentimentality and yet with such empathy for each of his characters as they tried to reconcile hope with acceptance. The complexity of their emotions was often revealed through their dialogue, guiding the reader through their struggles, almost in “real time”. I found this such an admirable demonstration of how much more effective storytelling is when the author “shows” rather than “tells”.

In his characterisations he never slips into easy stereotyping but creates credible, multi-faceted characters with whom, even at moments when their behaviour was questionable, it was easy to empathise. As I was reading I felt that he cared deeply about them and found something redeemable in each of them. His reflections on what happens to people’s dreams which have to be deferred – do they “dry up, sag like a heavy load or maybe, one day, explode” – were central to the story and had a powerful impact on me as I reflected on the deferred dreams of each of the characters.

This is not a quick, easy read: the patience with which the author reveals the complexities of the individual back-stories needs to be matched by the reader’s willingness to embark on this complex journey. However, with such lyrical, beautiful prose this was no hardship; in fact there were times when I found myself re-reading certain sections just to appreciate all over again the brilliance of the prose. This could so easily be a depressing story but, although desperately sad and disturbing at times, it is one which encompasses the restorative power of love and hope – and it also has some moments of wonderful humour.

For anyone who enjoys thought-provoking, reflective, insightful and literary writing, this is a book I have no hesitation in recommending. I know that not only is it one which will remain vivid for a long time, but it is one which I’m sure I’ll be tempted to re-read.

Linda Hepworth 5/5

Oliver Loving by Stefan Merrill Block
Atlantic Books 9781786492081 hbk Mar 2018


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