Book club: A Time to Kill by John Grisham

I have read several John Grisham novels over the years, which is surprising to most people when I usually try to distance myself from my profession. I came across The Street Lawyer several years ago, fresh out of law school myself and working at a legal aid firm where I literally did come into contact with people from all walks of life. However, unlike the character in The Street Lawyer, I had never wanted the corporate life in the city. The Street Lawyer resonated and stuck with me through the years, and is probably why I do not shy away from other works by Grisham.

The most tantalising aspect of A Time To Kill, as well as some of his other novels, is its setting. America’s deep south; dry heat, rednecks and moonshine to name a few of the things that spring to mind. Now that’s probably a gross generalisation, but I’ve always been drawn to parts of the world where you sweat from 8am, cold beer is never far and there’s little but dry, cracked earth and dust for miles. However, there is a darker side to this part of the world, which drew attention in previous years and on which Grisham has based this novel: the racial tensions following desegregation.

Plot

A Time To Kill is the story of a black man who is on trial for killing his daughter’s rapists – who were white-skinned. It follows the life of the lawyer (also white) who is trying to secure the man’s acquittal at a trial before a predominantly white jury. Grisham builds on the lawyer’s initial scepticism of the racial tensions being an issue, then the dawning on him of the harm that he and his family could come to if he continues to be involved in the case. The lawyer is only human though; he has a family to provide for and a job to do despite the difficulties it poses. Featuring the return of the Klu Klux Klan (albeit a rather mild portrayal), it is a well written, both politically and emotionally, novel that makes the reader question the racial bias at that time and the pursuit of justice in such a case.

Grisham has acknowledged that such a heavy plot scheme needs some light humour in order to break it down, in the form of the lawyer’s former mentor – a now disbarred lawyer with a sharp brain but a penchant for whiskey who spends his days on his front porch. A side-kick, in so much as he is a main character, but without the cliché of being a duo against the world.

Simply written, with detailed character traits and personalities, A Time To Kill does not disappoint and is definitely up there in my list of Grisham’s best works.

up-a_time_to_kill
A still taken from the movie of the same name

 

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Book club: To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

Based at the end of the 19th century, To the Bright Edge of the World is a tale of exploration of the newly-acquired Alaskan territory by the US government. Its a story of two halves; Allen, the expedition leader whose mission is to journey up the Wolverine river and his wife, Sophie, who is left behind at the Vancouver barracks.

The novel has been critically acclaimed, with Ivey’s use of diary entries supposedly adding depth with excellent authorial tones, and the descriptive hardships of the Alaskan wilderness providing the contrasting grit and moodiness that shape the novel. I will say from the outset, that I simply did not feel this way about this book.

Ivey’s descriptions of Alaska are wonderful; from the landscape to the native indians residing there and the mystical beliefs the explorers encountered and dealt with during their time there. But it is the diary entries from Sophie that, for me, let this book down. They are excessively long, contain letters from other minor characters that are full of technical details about photography and do little to progress the story. Sophie’s character is curious, but the trivialities of her socialite life in Vancouver only serve to detract from Allen’s adventures and hardships, not to bolster them. Whilst Sophie’s diary entries give the reader an insight into the life of a privileged newlywed in that era and the social attitudes of the time, Ivey could quite easily have cut Sophie out of the book entirely; for me, the intrigue lay solely with Allen in Alaska and I found myself quickly reading or even flipping through Sophie’s rather tedious writings.

Allen’s task is gripping from the very beginning. His mission seemingly impossible, not least due to the environment and weather conditions he finds himself in, but the constant threat of violence he has been warned to expect from the native indians. As a character, Allen is professional; he is a soldier sent to map the territory and that is what he intends to do. His emotions rarely go deeper than to describe his surroundings and his sense of unease or surprise. He is not a dramatic man, and that is perhaps why I find him more endearing and believable. I almost forgot I was reading a diary entry on many occasions, and felt as though I was there seeing it through his eyes and could form my own emotions from it.

What really brings this story to life is Ivey’s reference to the mystical; occurrences that Allen and his men cannot explain, but that fill them with a mix of trepidation, awe and fear. Men who are otters, women who bring fog in their wake and babies born of trees. The weather inducing hallucinations and crippling anxiety of encountering cannibals. And the raven; the harbinger of death in human form. Subtle references yet magical, giving the reader a sense of the otherwordly, untouched wildness of Alaska.

My love of adventure and exploration was satisfied with To the Bright Edge of the World, but it was not a fictional masterpiece. Too many pieces were missing to make it a completely rounded story in its own right; Sophie’s character and her position should have been stronger if it were to feature at all. All of those pages lost to her could have been utilised to bring more emotion and suspense to the goings on in Alaska.

Worth a read, if you can get past the first few chapters.

ivey