The Wake of Forgiveness – Book Review

His eyes had cleared, the pain in his knee just a twinge of memory, but now he was seeing his father, the blood dark at the corner of his mouth, his body sucking into the mud of the land he’d tried the whole of his adult life to work toward his own ends, his tobacco-stained lips whispering to his one remaining son, the one to whom the land would fall now that he had fallen, the son he couldn’t lose because he’d never quite had him to begin with. – from the ARC of The Wake of Forgiveness, page 256 –

Karel Skala is the youngest son of Klara and Vaclav, born in 1895 on the same night his mother dies while struggling to birth him. Karel’s father, a Czech immigrant and a rough and violent man who has made a living off the Texas land of Lavaca County, only becomes more hardened after the death of his wife. He turns away from the son he blames for her death and immerses himself in the land. This is a man who harnesses his sons to a plow to work his fields (causing them to develop perpetually kinked necks), and accumulates his land by sitting Karel atop a horse to race against his nearest neighbor’s son.

The horses reared and surged, and the smoke from Lad’s gun flew up in a windswept whirl and circled itself like a confused spirit into the creekside trees. The boys got up fast in their stirrups, and by the time they urged their animals up to speed, hoof sod flying behind them as they tore past the cheering line of men and between the two fires and into the darkness, eleven-year-old Karel was laying it on thick with his whip. – from the ARC of The Wake of Forgiveness, page 20 –

Bruce Machart’s debut novel The Wake of Forgiveness is about Karel and his father, about the bonds of family and the crevices in sibling relationships, about the Texas land and the men and women who work it, and about love, loss and redemption. Machart writes in a non linear fashion, weaving back and forth from the late nineteenth century, to 1910 (when Karel is fifteen years old), to 1924 (when Karel is a  grown man, married with his own children). His prose is poetic and balanced, intense and captivating, violent and heartbreaking. This is a big, sprawling book like the Texas landscape itself.

I found myself enthralled by Machart’s book. I loved how he crafted his characters, adding layers to them as the novel progresses. When a rich Mexican arrives in Lavaca County with his three desirable, raven haired daughters, a horse race is organized between Karel and Graciela (one of the daughters) with either land or marriage at stake – depending on who wins the race. The interaction between these two characters on the eve of the race is just another fine example of Machart’s talent to create tension while unveiling another aspect of character.

“Well,” says Karel, “seems only fair that you tell me your name, don’t it? Before you leave me in the dust, I mean.”

She turns the horse back at him, her eyes so deep and full of their dark allure that Karel imagines she could pull him out of his boots and into the saddle with nothing more than a look. She curls a few strands of the horse’s mane around her finger and wets her lips with her tongue, and, before she gives her horse a heel and gallops him into the early morning fields, she leans down over Karel such that her hair brushes against his face and he breathes her in and she smells of lavender and of beeswax and of sweet feed, and then her voice is in his ear and she’s whispering: “Ask me Saturday, and I’ll tell you it’s Skala.” – from the ARC of The Wake of Forgiveness, page 35 –

Machart’s writing is some of the finest I have read in a long time. Dialogue, setting, plot, character…all are fully developed. Machart captures the wide open spaces of Texas, the hard work of farming and ranching, and the beauty of a horse running…all with gorgeous writing that takes the reader’s breath away.  This novel is about the troubled relationship between a boy and his father, and the sibling rivalry between brothers who suffer beneath the unrelenting hand of their father. It is also about the human heart’s capacity for love and forgiveness amid hardship.

I would not be at all surprised if The Wake of Forgiveness shows up on the literary prize lists in 2011. It is a gripping drama beautifully executed with unforgettable characters. This is one I highly recommend.

FTC Disclosure: I received this Advance Readers Edition from the publisher through the Barnes and Noble First Look Book Club.

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    • Shelley on September 6, 2010 at 10:46

    Interesting convergence of my own writing territory, Texas, with another land I love but have never visited: Czechoslovakia. Vaclav Havel is a hero of the first stature.

  1. You read a lot of good books, so for you to call this some of the finest writing you’ve read in a long time is high praise indeed. It’s going on my wish list.

    • gavin on September 6, 2010 at 14:13

    Now I know I have to read this:)

    • Nicola on September 6, 2010 at 15:16

    Oh man! You read good books! Maybe next year you can just tell me what ARC’s you’ve got coming so I can get my requests in too! LOL

    • zibilee on September 7, 2010 at 08:27

    Wow! It sounds like this is a really powerful and well written book, and like one I’d like to check out. The father harnesses his sons to the plows? That’s crazy, but also interesting! Thanks for the great review on this book. I will be checking it out!

  2. This is being added to my list based on your review.

  3. I read this also, and really could not put it down EVEN THOUGH I hated almost every character! So maybe I cared about them anyway, I don’t know. I too thought it was a beautiful execution although I thought that every once in a while his poetness got a little out of hand and I found myself saying, huh?!!!

    I can’t decide how I feel yet so I haven’t written my review! It’s interesting to see the author’s comments (he’s now responding to questions) and how much *he* loves his characters – even Vaclav, who I wanted to be very dead.

    • Wendy on September 13, 2010 at 08:59

    Shelley: Seems like you would be interested in this book!

    Kathy: I hope you’ll like this one – the writing is absolutely stunning (in my opinion!)

    Gavin: *smiles* I hope you do!

    Nicola: LOL! Well, you also get some good ones … maybe we should just exchange lists!

    Zibilee: Yup – the father really is one of the more cruel characters I’ve read…but it gives some depth to the story too.

    Kathleen: I hope you’ll love it!

    Rhapsody: Glad to hear this one was a compelling read for you. I agree that most of the characters were not likable…and yet, I found I had empathy for all of them EXCEPT the father who, like you, I thought deserved his death in the mud. I’m enjoying reading the comments by the author over at First Look (and I liked your conversation with him over there!!)

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