THE MOUNTAIN CAN WAIT by Sarah Leipciger

The Amazon blurb for this debut novel reads: ‘Set in a stunning but scarred Canadian landscape, THE MOUNTAIN CAN WAIT is a story of fathers and sons and the heartache they cause each other, in the tradition of Annie Proulx.
Tom Berry has always been a loner, a man content to live out his days in the wilderness with just enough ammunition and kerosene to last out the winter. A single father, he has raised his children with the same quiet and absolute dedication he brings to his forestry business, but now he’s discovering that might not have been enough.
When his son, Curtis, on the brink of adulthood, disappears after a tragic accident, it falls to Tom, the hunter, to track him down. Whether he can truly reach Curtis is another matter.’
Reviewers all praise Leipciger’s writing for its haunting quality, its beauty and its clarity. They also admire Leipciger’s creation of ‘flawed characters you care about’ and her depiction of the tender and mercurial relationship between father and son. What the critics rarely mention is the plot. It is slow, meandering even, and it is what divided our book group. The majority were not fans of the lack of pace and incident. They also found the narrative structure (which, not long after the arresting opening scene, spends a long time in the forest with Tom, the father, before returning to Curtis and the aftermath of the hid-and-run) ‘odd’ and frustrating. I tended to agree with them about the structure, but, in common with the minority voice (singular), I rather enjoyed the slow pace which let us get to know Tom bit by bit in the wonderful Canadian forest landscape. The tree planting chapters were full of realistic detail and were also a fascinating glimpse into an industry of which I knew nothing. Again these descriptions created differing responses. The lone voice enjoyed the detail too, and liked the culture clash between the tree planters and tree fellers. However Martin, who could not attend the meeting, wrote, ‘the cut throat capitalism of the logging industry was new to me but I don’t feel better for knowing about it. Not impressed.’ The majority thought that the imagery in the descriptions of landscape were overdone and without purpose at times, although at other times – for instance Tom’s canoeing, swimming and climbing trek – they told us something about character as well as landscape. Everyone thought the mosquitos were wonderfully well described!
There was something retro, even Hemingway-esque, about Leipciger’s protagonist, Tom, and his inability to connect with others. The episode where he would rather fix the kitchen tap than ‘fix’ his son is very affecting. The minority voice also thought that Tom’s strong feelings for his children were evident, as was his shock at the realisation that they thought he didn’t care about them when he had given up his life for them and continued to do so: ‘the mountain can wait’. Other characters were equally well-drawn, creating a response in the book group readers, even if it was sometimes a negative response. Martin writes that he ‘had to feel sorry for Tom with his wayward wife, misbehaving employees, nervous daughter and angst and drug ridden murderous son’.
The lone voice thought that the novel had something to say about the human condition and enjoyed the thematic symbolism of hunting, utilised, for instance, in the episode depicting Curtis’ inability to finish the kill.
Although the novel was certainly downbeat – and I can see why the majority found it dreary and difficult to finish – I thought it right that there were no happy endings in this exploration of the outcomes of the avoidance of responsibility. Apt, also, that the final chapter went to the victim of the hit-and-run.

We finished, as usual, with recommendations from members, including:
How to Be Both by Ali Smith
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimer McBride
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
The Martian by Andy Weir

Ann Coburn

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About the book group

The Berwick Book Group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the First Class Passenger Lounge on the platform of Berwick Train Station at 6.30pm.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit www.newwritingnorth.com/submit/join-berwick-book-group.

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