28 Jan Below Torrential Hill by Jonathan Koven
A poetic coming-of-age story
Coming-of-age stories usually centre around teenagers, and Jonathan Koven’s novella is no exception – hero Tristen is a 16-year-old boy living in small-town America.
Tristen’s father died when he was young, his stepfather has just left and his mother has turned to alcohol. Now his girlfriend Ava has finished with him, too. No wonder Tristen’s unhappy and confused.
There are tears and tantrums and teenage rebellion as he deals with the stirrings of first love and the realisation that parents aren’t perfect. The experimentation with alcohol and drugs, the navel gazing of adolescent angst, the rage against the older generation – all are here, waiting to be dissected.
So far, so Catcher in the Rye.
But here the narrative departs from the norm, as Koven takes us deeper into Tristen’s psyche, following him through a single night and day, over Christmas eve and Christmas day, as he struggles with his identity in a story that’s full of symbolism and rich in metaphorical prose.
It starts with a comet burning bright above Torrential Hill, Tristen’s home – is this a metaphor for Tristen himself, soaring high, fierce with ambition and longing, but destined to crash to earth?
Thismetaphoric tone continues as Tristen becomes almost a Hamlet figureg. Grieving his dead father, and the loss of his stepfather, he sees his mother as a fraud and a threat, is disgusted by her dependence on alcohol, yet curious about the solace it brings her.
His ambivalence towards her almost drives him mad – but perhaps, he thinks at one stage, madness is better than forgiveness.
But by the time Christmas day is over, Tristen has completed a journey that has not taken him very far from home, but has opened his eyes to the reality of life and a better understanding of human frailty.
In the devastation left by the comet’s fall, he faces his own darkness and emerges from the other side, shaken, stirred but finally ready to move on.
This story was completely different to what I expected in that there is not a lot of action. It’s a descriptive rather than a narrative tale, and I found some of ideas impenetrable. But then I suppose, so is a teenager’s mind!
The prose is very poetic as inanimate objects are given life. The forests “become awake in parts”; a puddle’s grey water “dances in the wake of his exit”; the dawning sky “is awake with Tristen’s torment”.
To get the full benefit of this book, you have to appreciate the imagery as much as the narrative. All the metaphors and similes translate into a claustrophobic, often menacing atmosphere that reflects Tristen’s own tortured mind as he tries to get to grips with his emotions.
I have to say I’d have warmed to our hero more if the author had introduced some humour into his story. I’d have preferred the story if it had been written in the first person rather than the third, too. I feel it would have made the teenager more authentic.
Nevertheless, though he’s definitely more Hamlet than Holden Caulfield, I’m glad to have met Tristen on this important part of his life’s journey. It’s always good to read a story that takes a familiar theme and turns it on its head like this through a completely different writing style.
Koven is first and foremost a poet and reading this novella reminded me of the beauty and richness of language. That can never be a bad thing, and it’s why I’ve given it four stars.
About the Author
Jonathan Koven grew up on Long Island, NY, embraced by tree-speak, tide’s rush, and the love and support of his family. He holds a BA in English and Creative Writing from American University, works as a technical writer, and is Toho Journal’s head fiction editor and workshop coordinator. He lives in Philadelphia with his best friend and future wife Delana, and cats Peanut Butter and Keebler. Jonathan’s debut chapbook Palm Lines is available from Toho Publishing.