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Book review: The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
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Author of a string of powerful novels, Kristin Hannah likes to do emotion on a grand scale…

And stories don’t come bigger on emotion – or landscape – than her spectacular new book, a raw, gritty and moving tale of a family struggling to survive, both physically and mentally, in the untamed wilderness of Alaska.

The Great Alone, a coming-of-age odyssey set in one of the most majestic but inhospitable places on Earth, explores the dynamics of a family blighted by the volatility and violence of a young father’s post-traumatic stress disorder after his recent return from the Vietnam war.

At the heart of this remarkable story are a mother, a father and their teenage daughter, living at the edge of the world and coping with a personal crisis that they cannot fully understand. But this is also a tale of young love, the hidden strengths of a close-knit community, and a nation struggling to be at peace with itself.

It’s 1974 and thirteen-year-old Leni Allbright has been on the move for the last four years, trying to fit in at new schools and often feeling ‘like the only adult in her family.’

They had been happy until her father Ernt came back from the war in Vietnam. Scarred by his experiences, he is moody, restless, quick to anger and aggressive to her beloved mother Cora whose fragility has been dangerously exposed.

Unable to hold down a job, Ernt has drifted from town to town, taking his family with him, but now a fellow Vietnam serviceman has left him his cabin and 40 acres of land in a town called Kaneq in Alaska, and Ernt jumps at the chance to go.

Declaring that this will be a place where he will be ‘free,’ where he can ‘breathe’ and ‘go back to the way we were,’ Ernt moves his family from Seattle to the remote ramshackle town on the Kenai Peninsula and a tiny cabin that turns out to be dilapidated and age-blackened.

Utterly unprepared for the weather and the isolation, but welcomed by the townsfolk, they fight to build a home in this harsh, beautiful wilderness. Leni finds comfort in reading, her close relationship with her mother, and a sense of belonging through the love and friendship of their neighbours’ son Matthew Walker.

But for Ernt and Cora, life is a constant struggle in this unpredictable wilderness. Ernt’s paranoia and anger increases dangerously, and Cora’s love and endurance is tested to the limit as they quickly discover that Alaska is both ‘beauty and horror’ and ‘saviour and destroyer.’

Hannah writes with an elegiac elegance in a narrative that still bristles with the grim realities of living in Alaska, an incomparable land of glacier-filled white mountains, a place that ‘can be Sleeping Beauty one minute and a bitch with a sawed-off shotgun the next.’

In a town like Kaneq there is no room for the idealist or the faint-hearted, you have to be tough… ‘dreamers,’ declares the Allbrights’ irrepressible neighbour Large Marge Birdsall, ‘don’t make it past the first winter.’

And it is the unique sense of Alaska’s isolation from the rest of America – a country reeling from the constant late 1970s news bombardment of bombings, plane hijackings, kidnapping and scandals – that informs the personal dramas playing out against a cruel but bewitching backdrop.

But ultimately, this is a gripping and moving story of love, family and friendship, pain, suffering and tragedy, and a celebration of an inspirational mother-daughter relationship and the resilience of the human spirit.

Extraordinary in its portrayal of Alaska’s awe-inspiring grandeur, and emotionally powerful in its exploration of a family in crisis, The Great Alone is a masterclass in epic novel writing.

(Macmillan, hardback, £18.99)