For all its epic sweep, generations of characters and beautiful writing, this debut novel from the acclaimed author of An American Childhood still feels like homework. A story of the settling of Washington State's Puget Sound at the end of the 19th century, it follows the intertwined lives of the "Bostons"—as the Native Americans of the region called any interlopers from the East—and the several Indian tribes that had long been fishing and logging in those parts. Part generational novel, part history text, The Living is like an early Twin Peaks—minus the weirdness.
And that, in a way, is its problem. The 397-page volume introduces readers to dozens of characters through more than 50 years, and yet we never really get inside one. Clare Fishburn, for example, grows from infancy to middle age: We see his marriage, his fatherhood, his metamorphosis into wealthy landowner and his odd relationship with the most David Lynchian character in Whatcom, the town eccentric Beal Obenchain. But he never quite comes to life; it's as if, in her studied use of language, the author has forgotten idiosyncratic humanity.
Still, Dillard has a poet's way with an aphorism, as in, "He spoke without emphasis and softly, pulling his words, as if his tongue were not a muscle but a petal." She also must have carefully researched the cadences of the time: apparently "to be abreast of what's afoot" was then a common expression.
Much of the writing is so graceful, it can carry the reader along for hundreds of pages; maybe only some will notice the lack of heart underneath. A renowned essayist, Dillard is a pro at constructing language that educates, elucidates and charms. Maybe next time she will create characters who do the same. (HarperCollins, $22.50)