I’ve been dealing with a lot recently, so July has been slow in terms of books. I managed to get through a pretty decent sized one though, so that’s an achievement!
This month, I read The Son by Philipp Meyer. It wasn’t something I would have immediately picked up, but it was recommended to me by a few people so I thought I’d give it a shot.
The Son isn’t actually about one son, it’s about a whole load of them, and a daughter as well. It tells the story of the McCulloughs, through the generations, from the 1830s to the 1980s, in Texas. Spanning five generations, and a number of viewpoints, there’s plenty going on in this novel.
The story is told mostly through the viewpoints of patriarch Eli, his son Pete and Pete’s granddaughter Jeanne (an interesting choice, given the title). Each character faces their own unique challenge throughout the novel, and each issue relates both to the individual and to the greater historical context of their narratives.
Eli experiences conflict between two identities; that of a captive-turned-Comanche and that of a white man, whilst his story simultaneously discusses brutal history of the Native Americans and their systematic eradication by white settlers. Pete’s story discusses another racial issue; that of prejudice in Texas towards Mexicans and the border wars, as well as his own love story that eventually leads to his family disinheriting him. Jeanne’s story focuses greatly on gender issues; she is a female heir to both her father, brothers and husband, in what can only be described as a ‘man’s world’ (hence the interesting link between her and the title). Jeanne navigates gender issues in her own life as well as the challenge of booming and declining economies, as per the course of American history.
In some ways, The Son is right up my street; American history and literature is kind of my thing. Because of the multi-generational interweaving stories, it’s safe to say there’s plenty of history encompassed in the novel, including some lesser told stories (those of Native Americans and Mexican workers living in Texas).
However, I found the story difficult to engage with; there’s almost too much history and flitting in and out of parts of it became confusing and disorientating fairly quickly. I don’t think this is intentional though. Whilst I did connect with the characters, I found myself pulled away from their story too soon each time, and when the novel returned to their narrative I felt a little lost.
It guess you could say that this is meant to symbolise both the fragmented experience of modernity or the sense that the characters are somewhat lost in their family history. That would make sense and makes the novel a lot cleverer than it looks at face value. However clever it may be though, I think it takes away from three stories that are equally important in their own right.