Monday, December 1, 2014

Monday Muse: 'In the Heart of the Dark Wood'

We are as forlorn as children lost in the woods.
When you stand in front of me and look at me,
    what do you know of the griefs that are in me
        and what do I know of yours. . . .
~ Franz Kafka*

Cover Art 

I came across the Kafka quote above after I finished reading Billy Coffey's fifth novel, In the Heart of the Dark Wood (Thomas Nelson, October 28, 2014). As an epigraph, that quote, it seems to me, offers a remarkably apt perspective on the philosophical underpinnings of this newest Coffey work: that we all are lost, suffer (often alone) in some kind of "dark wood", and cannot understand one another, or even begin to transition to a state of self-awareness that will allow for compassion and love for self and others, until we puzzle through the heart of that wilderness. In his most developed characters to date, the motherless twelve-year-old Allie Granderson and her best friend Zach Barnett of Mattingly, Virginia, Coffey invests the full meaning of the relationship of self to self and of self to others. It is no accident that these two children who become lost are not found in the end by Mattingly's adults but by themselves, through their own discoveries. 

One can read In the Heart of the Dark Wood as, most simply, a well-told coming-of-age tale; it is that! Allie and Zach, accompanied by the pet dog Samwise, undertake a heart-breaking search to find Allie's mother, who was swept away in a tornado 18 months before. They necessarily are subject to incredible trials, must go to the very heart of the Dark Wood, before they can return home.

Coffey layers his work with all the complexities of the unknowns; it is his deeper-than-surface treatment of story that impels the reader to keep thinking about meaning long after finishing this book. As he manages to do in all his fiction, through inspired setting, realistic, well-conceived characterization, suspenseful action, and skillfully applied supernatural effects, Coffey again takes on big issues—death, moral and religious sin and suffering, loss of innocence, search for happiness, change, struggle against acceptable ways of being and doing—without resorting to heavy-handed dialogue, an overbearing narrative, too-simple explanations, or too-neatly-tied-up endings that ensure the reader doesn't miss the point. Rather, Coffey questions, and so leads the reader to question him- or herself, without (wisely) suggesting there is any one-for-all answer. Because life itself, with its innumerable difficulties, offers no easy answers. Loss and its vigilant attendant, grief, always have the power to separate us, even as need to believe and to have hope unites us. Sometimes, how we see our way most clearly is through whatever light we shine in darkness. 

In addition to treating large themes masterfully, keeping them connected but in tension, Coffey makes deft use of metaphors: the hollow ("dark wood") of the novel's title, the weather and the suffering it produces, a broken toy compass, the little dog Samwise who, together with Allie and Zach, forms a trio that has echoes in the Christmas-time setting (arguably, perhaps also in the missing figure of the Nativity and the well-known story of the journey of the Three Wise Men), and the bear Arctodus simus** that tracks the characters' movements and leaves "sharp edges" for the children to find. 

The wonder of In the Heart of the Dark Wood is how coherent Coffey's allegory is and how beautifully he uses it to reveal us to ourselves.

Note: I received a hard copy of the book from the publisher for purposes of commenting on it.

* "Leter to Oskar Pollak", November 8, 1903, in Max Broad (Ed.), Briefe, 1902-1924 (Schocken, 1958), p. 27; Translation: Frederick R. Karl Franz Kafka, Representative Man (Ticnor & Fields, 1991), p. 98.

** Arctodus simus is an excellent example of Coffey's attention to detail and skillful handling of provocative metaphor.

Billy Coffey's other novels are The Devil Walks in Mattingly (Thomas Nelson, 2014), When Mockingbirds Sing (Thomas Nelson, 2013), Paper Angels ( FaithWords, 2011), and Snow Day (FaithWords, 2010).

My Interviews: "Monday Muse: New Interview with Billy Coffey" (March 24, 2014), "Monday Muse Interviews Novelist Billy Coffey" (June 10, 2013), and "Monday Muse Interviews Billy Coffey + Giveaway" (November 7, 2011).

Billy Coffey on FaceBook and Twitter

Thomas Nelson Page for In the Heart of the Dark Wood

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