I confess that I am a big fan of Burke’s. He’s written a prodigious number of novels over the past fifty years, and I have read almost all of them. This is why, although I get nearly all of my books free prior to publication, I put this title on my Christmas wish list when I wasn’t given access to a galley. Perhaps because my spouse paid full jacket price for it, I am holding it to a higher standard than I usually do. This book is either a three star or four star read, depending on whether we factor in the dollars. Let’s call it 3.5 and round it up. It seems like a shame to 3-star a writer who is so talented and has contributed so much to American literature.
Most of Burke’s novels are detective fiction, crime fiction, mystery, or all three; now and then he writes historical fiction instead. And his choice to send Dave and Clete, the protagonist and side kick of the Robicheaux series, is a good one. No matter how much I enjoyed it, in that fictional world where cops do the right thing and bad guys are really bad every time, there is no way the reading public would be able to continue to enjoy their vigilante behaviors between the covers of a book at the same time that the Black Lives Matter movement has made us aware of that problem—along with the throw-down weapons used to justify gratuitous brutality after the fact–that exist in real life. So, that series is over, and I’m okay with it.
Technically, House of the Rising Sun is a four to five star novel. Burke’s use of imagery is rivaled by few and exceeded by none. Here, his use of allegory, creating a personal Odyssey based on one of the author’s own ancestors, is unquestionably strong. If you love literary fiction for its own sake, this is your book.
By far the strongest writing lies in the portions are set on the battlefields of Europe. Burke’s prose is eloquent and stirring in narrative passages that speak to the class nature of imperialist warfare.
For me, the issue has to do with plot and pacing. The entire book is essentially built around Hackberry Holland’s effort to find his son. They are separated when his wife leaves him and Ishmael is still a child, and through World War I and the period that follows, the journey to find Ishmael winds its way in a way that serves the allegory, but that feels tedious to me as a reader. A fight here; a fall off the wagon and drunk in the streets; looking here, there, everywhere; writing letters; making phone calls; it seems for a long time as if he has barely missed his son. Throw into it the villains—Maggie, Beatrice, and above all, Arnold Beckman—and that’s pretty much it. I don’t want to give anything away, but there isn’t that much suspense to begin with.
A lot of the dialogue seems as if it has been recycled from Burke’s previous books; not whole paragraphs, just speech patterns with a fragment here, a fragment there that left me thinking I had read it before this.
Anytime I find a jarring racist term in a novel, I point it out so that prospective readers will know it’s coming. The “N” word gets used several times; it is within the context of establishing or emphasizing someone’s malign nature. There are also other areas in which Holland takes Caucasian characters to task for racist behavior. Still, I like to think a writer of Burke’s stature can and should develop a credible villain without resorting to this hurtful, and to my thinking, cheap and easy method.
Whether this novel is for you probably depends most on what you look for in a novel. Lush descriptions and horrifically real violence abound, but there isn’t the kind of suspense you’d expect a missing-kid story to employ.
When push comes to shove, I recommend you read this, if you are still interested after reading the reviews, but get it once it goes to paperback, or wait for it to be available used; don’t pay full cover price for it unless your pockets are deep and your interest strong.