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Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Book Review: The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

I picked this up in the shop because of its length and purchased it because the blurb made it sound so interesting. I was looking for a lengthy and engrossing read and, luckily, that's precisely what I got.

The 19th Wife recounts two tales separated by a century but both revolving around polygamous marriage. In modern America, Jordan returns to Utah when he discovers his mother is in prison after being accused of killing his father. However, the family life was more complicated than that - Jordan used to live amongst a secretive Mormon sect before being excommunicated. He sets out to prove his mother's innocence and encounters the distortion of 'family life' he left behind years ago. The other story in the novel is that of Ann Eliza Young, nineteenth wife of the second Prophet of the Mormon Church, who caused a sensation when she strove for freedom from her husband and tried to end polygamy in the US. The tale is about much more than merely Ann Eliza, however. It looks at the origin of the Mormon Church and details some of the key moments in its history.

Ebershoff creates historical 'sources' to illuminate the text but states in his author's note that these are mostly inspired by actual sources. He adds, 'The mighty lens of history has enabled me to see Ann Eliza's life as she could not, and I have used this perspective to tell her story in a way that perhaps broadens it and connects it to our day. All of this is a longwinded answer to the original question, is The 19th Wife [the historical section] based on real people and real events? Yes. Have I invented much of it? Yes, for that is what novelists do.' (p601)

This work really is mammoth, although it did leave me wanting more. Both eras were depicted in resonating detail and the entire novel is well-written. The murder mystery that sparks the 'front' story is only the catalyst for an excellent examination of polygamy in modern-day America. Jordan is a likeable protagonist, a little free and easy with his profanities but a very realistic character. He's also gay - although that's not the reason he was excommunicated from his sect. During his quest to prove his mother's innocence, he encounters several characters from his past and makes some new friends, accompanied by his dog Elektra. He picks up a stray teenager, Johnny, and garners a boyfriend, Tom, along the way, all the while promising himself he's only in Utah to clear his mother's name.

I'll leave the conclusion of the novel for you to discover. I really would recommend this book. It's fluid and enlightening, but also tells a very gripping story. If I had a complaint it would be that there was no consistent flipping between the present and the past. Chapters of Ann Eliza's 'memoir' and other 'documents' were placed in blocks throughout but there was no guarantee how many you would encounter at any one time. It threw me off a few times. Equally, there was just one point in the novel where I noticed startling repetition. Something had been told in Ann Eliza's memoir to the reader and then repeated by another character for the benefit of the protagonist. While I understand why Ebershoff chose to impart it that way, perhaps a brief summary would've been more practical for the reader.

Nevertheless, I'm glad I picked up this book and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

1 comment:

Brighton Blogger said...

This sounds like something I'd enjoy reading. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!