Book Review: West Virginia by Joe Halstead

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I’ll begin my admitting I’m instantly attracted to books that have cities or larger locations as their central theme, or books where a city lends quality/character to the story. I love New York novels (The Ramblers and A Little Life, to name a couple), and I love London novels (Neverwhere and Mrs Dalloway). So when Unnamed Press gave me the opportunity to review their book, I browsed through their titles and came across West Virginia and instantly selected it.

It took me a few days to get through the novel, although it’s a quick read with a tiny bit over 200 pages. I was quite feverish during a couple of those days and I’m not feeling strange at all to say that it somehow helped me connect with the protagonist Jamie, whose narrative felt emotionally charged and feverish at the same time. It was very interesting to read about this young man who was torn between West Virginia, where he grew up, and New York, where he became an adult and learned to be independent.

Essentially the novel picks up when Jamie finds out his father has committed suicide. This pushes Jamie to return to West Virginia, a visit that fills him with dread and only highlights the discomfort his family brings to him, along with his feelings of distance and discontent towards them. Halstead doesn’t sugarcoat anything and that only makes the story more gritty and real. The novel is scattered with everyday social interactions that remind Jamie of the growing discord between him and his hometown.

I’d hate to go into details and ruin the book for people, so I’ll stick to the main things that stood out. There are a lot of drugs, wayward living, and tired artist symptoms in this book, and a lot of raw and gritty writing that presents it – I have no complains, I dig that stuff because I love reading about weary souls. The novel’s theme is in the vein of modern existentialism, identity and being torn between the home of your past and your present condition or your personal growth after leaving home. It’s also about moving on and coming to terms with the realisation that you can’t always know what goes on inside the mind of a person, that some things remain mysteries. Amongst all of this, it’s about a young writer, a little lost and struggling to come to terms with his identity. There are elements of destructive-love, or maybe it’s a twisted kind of love, but I think it was a very modern and realistic sort of connection between two people.

This is a difficult book for me to comprehend, and I don’t always admit that. It’s been a day since I read it and I’m still unsure about whether I was able to grasp what the author intended. It’s definitely a stunning debut, filled with moments that highlight the anguish and anxiety and the shame lent to a person’s consciousness because of “redneck” stereotypes (there’s a lot in this book on the redneck stereotype, I have almost no knowledge on the issue, so I feel I’m not qualified enough to put in my comments on its representation in the novel).

West Virginia made me feel miserable, made my feverish nights even more uncomfortable – simply because Halstead created a young character who is so real and whose story is told with unflinching honesty, and who I found myself relating to, despite the fact that we share absolutely nothing in common, except maybe the desire to get away from “home”. In many ways, Jamie is struggling to get away from one reality to another, and I felt that was very beautifully done. But it’s pretty clear which part of his life he favours more, and I don’t blame him for wanting to get away from his family.

Read West Virginia if you’re an adult who is torn between cities or between the notion of home and becoming independent. There’s so much more to it, though, so give it a shot anyway. West Virginia is an intimate and haunting character study.

Thank you to Unnamed Press for providing a copy of the book! This review is completely honest. Check out their website: http://www.unnamedpress.com

Add West Virginia your Goodreads.

Buy it on Book Depository for $14.08, free shipping.

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