Robert Haller builds a town in his debut novel. His characters circle a church but are connected by their disconnect with God. The novel is told through shifting perspectives, set around Vacation Bible Camp, the church’s annual summer camp. The novel follows April and Laura Swanson, a mother and daughter both on the brink of unconventional romances; Ben Waid, a ten-year-old camper at odds with his foster brother; and Paul Frazier, the once promising rock star who recently returned to the small town. All the characters are brought to the camp, whether by force or circumstance, finding themselves confronting their own identities and discovering it isn’t as fixed as they believed. Paul, a recent graduate with dependency issues, has the least connection to God, reluctantly getting a job at his mother’s church. He is repulsed by member’s devotion yet finds solace in a new relationship April, the director of the camp. April finds herself swept up by this sudden romance, which is perhaps why she doesn’t notice her daughter entering into an online relationship with an older man.
Although Paul Frazier is maybe the most interesting perspective, it is Ben Waid, the youngest narrator, who draws you in as he grapples with the biggest questions. All the characters recognize their bad behaviors yet inevitably succumb to them. Ben is the most morally wrought by this. His self-destructive tendencies burst from him, leaking out the sides as he desperately tries to control them. He is almost surprised as he lashes out, expecting more mature behavior than his age can allow. If recognizing behaviors were enough to control them, Ben would be saintly. However, he always finds himself somewhere in between, his good deeds as small as his bad, which might leave him in oblivion—the scariest place to imagine yourself as a young adult. They are striving towards righteousness, but finding that the mark set by the church may always be unattainable. When choosing between hell and grace, being human seems like its own sin. It is through discovering the distance between that they allow themselves to evolve.
The church serves as more of a panopticon than sanctuary. Although the characters overlap, each story feels confessional as we learn more about their internal conflicts. The characters are self-absorbed, but not selfish. Robert Haller goes in and out of centering religion in his novel. He leans on it socially at times, having characters trapped by the Church’s views on abortion and homosexuality. His characters will occasionally question the literalness of God and Hell, torn between the belief that there is someone judging them and the figurative suggestion of a moral code. He doesn’t force characters to draw a uniform decision—this isn’t a novel with a Message. However, it is sometimes too vague making it unclear whether people are become disillusioned with the church or with God. Although the book could extend to a more satisfying conclusion, Haller is careful to leave his characters headed in the right direction, knowing that finding ultimate clarity isn’t always the solution to progress.
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