Several factors drew me to this book. First, the novel is about a shooting. On a hot August night, a young girl shoots her father with a hunting rifle, mistaking him for a deer. As research for the novel I’m writing at the moment, I’ve been reading novels that tackle gun laws and shootings in America.
Some writers stay away from works of fiction that address subjects that they’re writing about but I’m of the mind that just as fine artists study grand masters who have trodden the path before them and musicians surround themselves with the music they love and aspire to create, I can only be nourished by those writers who have trodden the path before me.
I know that my voice and my story will be distinctly different so I go to these novels, simply ready to learn and expand my understanding.
The novel is also set in New Hampshire, my adopted home state, the state where my own story is set. As an outsider, I want to understand the place where I live and that means looking at it from every angle: social, political, geographical historical – and literary. I wanted to see what a novel set in New Hampshire looked like – and whether the New Hampshire I have come to know is true to the New Hampshire that a native writer describes.
Finally, Before You Know Kindness is, at heart, a family drama – and family dramas are what I write. More than that, it is a family drama told from multiple points of view which, again, is a technique I love and use often. I love to see how other writers do what I love to do: I am always ready to learn.
In many ways, this novel did nourish and instruct. It brought New Hampshire to life for me and gave me confidence that, over the past two years, I have come to know at least a little of the place where I now live. I hugely admire the opening which takes the reader to the heart of the drama in an immediate and powerful way.
I also loved how Bohjalian conveyed the points of view of the two children in this novel: their shock, their guilt, their coming of age brought about prematurely by the shooting. The most touching aspect to the book, for me, was the journey of the character who gets shot, Spencer: how he goes from being an extreme animal rights activist who seems to give more attention to the welfare of animals than to his wife and daughter to someone who, through great physical and emotional turmoil, begins to soften, to see his family for who they are and to understand how the world is more grey than black and white.
Through pain, both physical and emotional, he softens and becomes real – and is, in the end, willing to put aside his lofty ideals for the people he loves.
This journey is charted, principally, through his daughter, the person who shot him, which makes his evolution particularly poignant.
As regards my own story about gun rights and gun laws, this book didn’t really tackle the heart of what I hope to investigate through my characters. Bohjalian’s story is more about hunting and vegetarianism than about the fundamental right to bear arms and the morality of owning a gun in the first place. None of the characters in Bohjalian’s novel have an absolute belief in the right to bear arms – none of them love guns. The gun, in some ways, is incidental. Furthermore, the characters all come from vaguely the same social grouping and hold similar political allegiances: there is no true polarisation. Even the subject of eating meat – or not eating meat – fails, in the end, to fully divide the characters. However, all that is reassuring: his novel, about a shooting, goes in a different direction to mine, which goes to show that one subject – and one story – can be told in a thousand different ways.
Bohjalian is a hugely talented, beautiful writer and it’s exciting to to know that he’s a neighbour of sorts. Who knows, perhaps we’ll cross paths one day. I gather he was a guest at Gibson’s Bookstore once, my local haunt.