Book Review: The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart

By Chris Curry, A Novel Experience:  This book is one of the best books I have read in over a year–it wasn’t an easy book but it is beautifully written, with a glimpse into a woman-less family of gritty, hard men on the south Texas frontier in 1895. The book starts with Czech farmer Vaclav Skala’s wife dying in childbirth with their fourth son. He carries his grief silently and becomes even more taciturn and cruel than he was before. Machart writes “the townsfolk would assume that Klara’s death had turned a gentle man bitter and hard, but the truth, Vaclav knew, was that her absence only rendered him, again, the man he’d been before he’d met her, one only her proximity had ever softened.”

The novel covers the next thirty years of the family’s fortunes on the harsh plains as Vaclav drives himself and his four sons in his obsession to become the biggest landowner in Lavaca County. One of his strategies is to challenge his neighbors to put up land as the prize in a series of horse races with youngest son Karel as the jockey. When the mysterious, rich Senor Villasenor proposes to take Karel’s three eldest sons for husbands for his three, marriage-age daughters as the prize for winning a race, Vaclav jumps at the chance–his horses are superior and he cheats. So does his opponent. With the subversive assistance of the three Skala sons who see the deal as a way to get away, Karel is defeated. The story follows the life of Karel, who aligns himself with his father after the race, even though he has always been assigned the blame for his mother’s death. His relationship with his father, and his subsequent relationship with the women in his life are shrouded by this loss.

This sets up the book’s themes of redemption and forgiveness that unfold in a series of incidents that absolutely ring true with historical authenticity and poetic language.  Farming on the unforgiving plains of south Texas. Infidelity. A bootlegging operation that goes bad. Arson.  I found myself re-reading passages just to savor the language and the descriptions of the landscape and the interior struggles of these men who loved each other but had no way of easily moving past the betrayals and disappointments that connected them. There is a scene at the end of the book that is probably the best piece of writing I have read on how men work things out. Spare, almost non-verbal, violent, subtle, but resonating with emotion not spoken or consciously realized.

This is Machart’s first novel–he has been compared to Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry and a modern William Faulkner. I think his writing is in a class by itself. It’s gritty, hard, and violent but not in a rock’em, sock’em way. It’s definitely a story that men would recognize–I hope they’ll have the patience to take this book up and read it. For women readers, it’s an incredible glimpse into the lives of men and reminds us again how much complexity lies beneath their surfaces. For everyone, the book’s lyrical prose and its authentic depiction of this landscape, characters and time is a real treat.

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