What I’m Reading: Robert Jackson Bennett – Mr. Shivers

This book had me hooked right from the first pages which consist of a highly atmospheric description of hobos riding a freight train in Depression era USA. It is not a realistic account (at least not necessarily so, for all I know it might be extensively researched and historicaRobert Jackson Bennett lly extremely accurate, I am simply not competent to judge), but the characters in Mr. Shivers move through a scenery that owes at least as much to myth and legend as it does to history. This is not quite obvious at the novel’s outset – at first it is just a nagging feeling that things are more than they appear and that there might be more to this tale of revenge we are apparently being told than meets the eye. As the novel progresses, that feeling continues to creep up on the reader, intensifying steadily; but it is only at the end, when all cards are on the table, that we find out what the true stakes are.

Mr. Shivers, while moving at a crisp pace and very far from boring, is not a plot-driven novel, and neither is its primary focus on character, even though the protagonist’s gradual change over the course of the novel is fascinating to follow. Instead it relies mostly on atmosphere – something quite risky for a book of over 300 pages, and it takes a very talented writer to be able to pull that off without making the novel a slog to get through. Fortunately, Robert Jackson Bennett is such a writer, his prose giving the reader a real sense of wide, open spaces, scoured by dust storms and bleached by the sun, with huge freight trains rattling through the landscape and hungry, desperate souls scraping for food and shelter.

Robert Bennett’s writing is lean, but lyrical – or maybe “musical” would be a better word: It is very easy (maybe even unavoidable) to imagine blues music of the period underlying the images he evokes, or in my case it was a soundtrack by William Elliott Whitmore that kept constantly playing in my head while I was reading. At  the start, the events Bennett describes appear fairly realistic, but as the novel progresses the plot begins to slope towards the supernatural, gathering momentum as the protagonist moves through landscapes that seem risen from legend and encounters  people that loom larger than life, and culminating in a finale with a twist ending that might not be completely unpredictable but that is impressive in its relentless consequence.  I did have quite high expectations for Mr. Shivers, after seeing this and Robert Bennett’s other novels garnering a lot of praise on several of my favourite blogs, but the novel easily surpassed those. This is an excellent novel, and I will definitely be reading Bennett’s subsequent works as well.

(Oh, and just because he is so utterly fantastic, have some more William Elliott Whitmore. Really, more people should listen to him. A lot more. Here’s another one.)


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