When you eat something delicious, it’s not uncommon to eat more slowly. You resist the urge to wolf it down because your senses tell you that this is something special and deserves lingering and savouring. This can be true for reading as well.
It’s been ten years since Enger’s other hugely successful novel Peace Like a River. Virgil Wander is not a fast read and has a few loose ends, but is not cumbersome. It is character driven and takes some time to unfold, but Enger’s sentences are rich and surprising; he’s funny, thoughtful, whimsical, and is a master storyteller. It’s the ordinary stuff of life that he makes extraordinary in this novel.
Virgil lives in Greenstone, Minnesota on the shores of magnificent Lake Superior, the largest freshwater inland sea in the world. In some ways the town is rather inconsequential and perhaps even dying, falling on some hard times. Strange hard luck sorts of things keep happening that suggest something sinister is going on. There’s plenty of symbolism to pick apart and themes to discover: about the raven, and the sea, and a man walking on water. I wonder if the author’s choice of the name Virgil refers to Dante’s guide through hell? Certainly he wanders in his attempt to get back on his feet after an accident that propels the reader straight into the book at the beginning!
Virgil Wander’s car flies off the road one snowy night into icy Lake Superior. He survives but his language and memory are altered and he emerges into a world no longer so familiar to him. Virgil begins to piece together his personal history but also the lore of this broken town, with the help of a cast of unforgettable characters—from Rune, a twinkling, pipe-smoking, kite-flying stranger investigating the mystery of his disappeared son; to Nadine, the reserved, enchanting wife of the vanished man, to Tom, a journalist and Virgil’s oldest friend; and various members of the Pea family who must confront tragedies of their own. Into this community returns a shimmering prodigal son who may hold the key to reviving their town.