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The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks

The Sweet Hereafter (1991)

by Russell Banks

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English (31)  French (2)  All languages (33)
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There's a set piece where a man has to give a tracheotomy that I still recall--even twenty years after finishing the book. ( )
  Stubb | Aug 28, 2018 |
Powerful writing about parenting, and the experiencing the sorrow for the lost of a child through death or addiction. ( )
  kerryp | Nov 30, 2017 |
To start off, a disclaimer: I do love genre fiction. As even a brief look through my reviews will show you, my reading spreads out very far afield indeed, and I enjoy pretty much every type of fiction as well as quite a lot of non-fiction. Still, the kind of fiction that I love the most, that is closest to my heart, is literary fiction; and there are reasons for that which go beyond personal preference. (And, another disclaimer, I’m of course well aware that there are exceptions, that there is genre fiction which is just as deep and ambitious and formally daring as the best of literary fiction. But those are just that: exceptions. (And, disclaimer inside a disclaimer, there is of course literary fiction that plain sucks, and this is not the exception at all. I’m not concerning myself with bad books here, however.)) What distinguishes good literary from most genre fiction is that the former has a layering of meaning, a surplus of significance which the majority of the latter lacks. You can trace this even in fairly conventional realistic fiction, if it is well made like, let’s say, Russell Banks’ comparatively slim novel The Sweet Hereafter.

So let’s take a look at it. After the disclaimers, a warning: It is impossible to make the point I want to make without mentioning details of the plot, so there will be spoilers.

The Sweet Hereafter takes place entirely in a small American town in Upstate New York. It is told in five parts by four different narrators, each of which has his or her own, very distinctive voice – something that Russell Banks handles very well here: The language that the narrators use does not only serves to tell them apart but also contributes to their characterization and to clarifying their relation to the novel’s central event, a school bus accident in which several children have died. The bus driver’s style is chatty as she attempts to distract herself from the terrible moment when she caused the bus to swerve off the road; the voice of the father who lost two children is detached and matter-of-fact as he is still under shock from which he will possibly never recover; the voice of the lawyer who persuades several of the bereft parents into a compensation lawsuit feels like a court address as he battles with the feelings of guilt nagging at him and attempts to justify himself; and the voice of the girl who survived the accident with her legs paralyzed is defiant as she not only copes with her disability but even tries to draw strength and confidence from it.

On its most obvious level, The Sweet Hereafter is a novel about greed and what it does to a community; it shows how an unscrupulous lawyer exploits the loss of grieving parents, and how those parents are only too willing to give in to his seduction (on this level, the lawyer does come across like something of a snake oil merchant and I think there may be reminiscences of Melville’s Confidence Man). The town community is close to breaking apart, and it is only when the parents and the lawyer are forced to relinquish the lawsuit that the town is finally healed. From this perspective, the novel tells a story of redemption and even is, in spite of the tragedy at its heart, quite uplifting in its overall effect.

That on its own would have made for a nice, if possibly somewhat forgettable novel, but there is more to The Sweet Hereafter than that. On another level – a level that is both more general and more individual – it is a novel about the way a single, unforeseen event can rupture apparently settled lives. The event itself – the bus accident – is never directly represented, it is a void, a lacuna that sharply divides everything into a Before and an After. It is probably from this level that the novel’s stems, insofar as the disruptive force of the event is such that even the survivors and the bereaved parents have been touched by death and passed into a different existence, have in some way died themselves. Of course, their hereafter is not particularly sweet, so the title is highly ironic, but even so the romanticisation it denotates marks one way to cope with the catastrophic event. And the novel traces many ways to deal with the disruption the event has caused, not only for its point of view characters but for the whole town; the lawsuit which was at the centre of the first layer becoming just one coping strategy among many on this level. And the ending, viewed from this perspective, is far more ambiguous – while some people do manage to cope with the desaster and its consequences, some are destroyed by it, and it is quite clear that everyone will be bearing its scars. Even Nichole (the surving school girl), who appears to have become a stronger person after surviving the accident has paid for this with the loss of use of her legs, while others sink ever deeper into lethargy and alcoholism.

The Sweet Hereafter, however, is still not done yet, and there is another layer of meaning to be unearthed if one digs just a little deeper, and this layer is mainly concerned with perception. Or more precisely, with the unreliability of perception which is a theme that runs through the whole novel from start to finish, starting with the bus accident itself, which was caused by the driver seeing something on the road which was not there – or maybe it was, we never really find out and remain as much in the dark about it as the bus driver herself. The bereaved father is unable to view the women he was having an affair with the same way as he did before, she has stopped being desirable for him. When the lawyer persuades the parents of the dead children to file a lawsuit he does so by shifting their perception, first by turning their tragedy into a source of possible profit, second by putting the blame for the accident on an instution that would be able to pay compensation. And Nicole has been sexually abused by her father for years, but none of the grown-ups has noticed, or wanted to notice. This thematic cluster culminates when Nicole places her deposition and lies about what she has seen – but although she lies about having actually seen the speed at which the bus was going, she may very well be right about it, as only the bus driver is contradicting her and she is not exactly reliable herself (and not even quite certain about what she has seen, either). So Nichole may be telling the truth even as she is lying, which of course is precisely what novels do – we might see a metafictional twist hidden there, if we were so inclined.

One could probably find more, if one kept looking hard enough for it, but I think I made my point. It is a bit like Zeno’s paradox, the one about Achilles and the turtle – just as Achilles is unable to catch up with the turtle even as their distance shrinks towards the infinitesimally small, there always remains a residue of unresolved significance in a work of literary fiction, a surplus of meaning which may grow smaller and smaller with each repeated reading but never disappears completely and always promises more things to discover.
1 vote Larou | Oct 12, 2016 |
This is the story of a school bus crash in a small town. It's also told from multiple points of view, including the bus driver, the father of a dead child, one of the injured children, and an ambulance-chasing lawyer. Obviously this meant each character had an entirely different spin to put on the story. I really enjoyed this book because it was an interesting concept and was well-written, but my favorite part was the emotional factor. There wasn't really one. In most cases that would be something to complain about, but here it was imperative. How easy would it be to get swept up in the tragedy of losing so many school-aged children? The book could have been a big sob-fest, forcing sentimental mush on the reader. While the tragedy isn't glossed over, Banks gently turns our focus to how the town is coping. ( )
  howifeelaboutbooks | Nov 4, 2015 |
Journal entry 1 by cmjuliep from New Hartford , New York USA on Monday, February 20, 2006

Definitely a worthwhile read. I had seen the movie years ago and of course, the book was way better. I did think the use of the "Pied Piper of Hamlin" in the movie was poignant but the portrayal of Nicole and her relationship with her father was contradictory to the feelings that motivate her in the book. I also didn't quite understand the lawyer's motivations when I watched the movie, and now he's quite clear. I was most affected by the ending of the novel (not part of the movie for obvious reasons), so I'm glad I took the time to read it. ( )
  engpunk77 | Aug 14, 2015 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0060923245, Paperback)

Atom Egoyan's Oscar-nominated The Sweet Hereafter is a good movie, remarkably faithful to the spirit of Russell Banks's novel of the same name, but Banks's book is twice as good. With the cool logic of accreting snowflakes, his prose builds a world--a small U.S. town near Canada--and peoples it with four vivid, sensitive souls linked by a school-bus tragedy: the bus driver; the widowed Vietnam vet who was driving behind the bus, waving at his kids, when it went off the road; the perpetually peeved negligence lawyer who tries to shape the victims' heartaches into a winning case; and the beauty-queen cheerleader crippled by the crash, whose testimony will determine everyone's fate.

We experience the story from inside the heads of the four characters in turn--each knowing things the others don't, each misunderstanding the facts in his or her own way. The method resembles Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and Gilbert Sorrentino's stunning Aberration of Starlight, but Banks's achievement is most comparable to John Updike's tales of ordinary small-towners preternaturally gifted with slangy eloquence, psychological insights, and alertness to life's tiniest details.

Egoyan's film is haunting but vague--it leaves viewers in the dark regarding several critical plot points. Banks's book is more haunting still, and precise, making every revelation count, with a finale far superior to that of the film. It's also wittier than the too-sober flick: the lawyer dismisses the dome-dwelling hippie parents of one of the crash victims as being "lost in their Zen Little Indians fantasy," which casts a sharp light on them and him, too. He's lost in his calculations of how each parent will fit into the legal system, and the ways in which he fits into the tragedy are lost on him. If only he and the Vietnam-vet dad could read each other's account of their tense first encounter, both of them might get what the other is missing.

Banks's wit is pitiless--it's painful when we discover that the bus driver, who prides herself on interpreting for her stroke-impaired husband, is translating his wise but garbled observations all wrong. The crash turns out not to be the ultimate tragedy: in the cold northern light of its aftermath, we discover that we're all in this alone.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:04:02 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Following a tragic schoolbus accident, high-profile lawyer Mitchell Stephens descends upon a small town. With promises of retribution and a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of the grieving community, Stephens begins his investigation into the details of the crash. But beneath the town's calm, he uncovers a tangled web of lies, deceit and forbidden desires that mirrors his own troubled personal life. Gradually, we learn that Stephens has his own agenda, and that everyone has secrets to keep.… (more)

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