Sheila's Reviews > The Other

The Other by David Guterson
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Dec 16, 10

bookshelves: coming-of-age, cultural, current_issues, mystery, relationships
Read in November, 2010

We talked about unreliable narrators in our writing group a little while ago, and even tried an exercise using an unreliable point of view. Afterwards I tried to think of books that might illustrate the technique. Though I couldn’t remember particular ones, I knew I’d read passages, maybe even whole books, written from the point of view of a self-absorbed beauty who thinks everyone loves her, a nervous investigator who thinks he’ll never succeed, a religious preacher who’s totally convinced of his own point of view… but I couldn’t recall reading any literary fiction where the unreliable narrator told the whole tale. Then I read The Other, by David Guterson.

I love Snow Falling on Cedars and Our Lady of the Forest, so I was expecting to find The Other would be similarly delightful. Instead I found something that read much more slowly and didactically, and a narrator who seems to totally miss the cues of normal human interaction.

For a while, the story carries the narration. The detailed references to recent history and culture are fascinating. The scenery of Washington’s backcountry is beautifully rendered. And the mysterious John William is sufficiently odd that we want to know what has happened / will happen to him. But it’s when the narrator meets his future wife that the turning point is reached. Do we want to read more from this strange point of view—the details certainly entice—or do we simply not believe the story anymore? At this point, Neil Countryman, narrator, becomes something different from the everyman we might have imagined. His point of view is consistently odd, his loyalty prodigious, his diligent observation truly intriguing, but his assumptions about the thoughts and behavior of others almost deliberately miss the mark.

The scenery’s stunning. The forest is alive. The characters are real and wonderful—yes even Neil. And the story is one that stays after the last page is read, leaving readers to wonder, just what was it about Neal that drew them in, in spite of disbelief, and which person is the “other” of the title, tragic John or incurious Neal?

I might not have finished the book were it not our book group’s choice for last month. But I’m very glad I did. It’s a slow, fascinating, absorbing read, with a perfectly rendered narrator who’s wholly reliable and true to himself, but beautifully illustrates the power of unreliable narration.



Disclosure: I bought this book in a bookstore because we’d chosen it for our group to read.
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