Monday, January 14, 2013

Book Review: A Town of Empty Rooms

Communion and community are essential parts of life. The famous Roman Catholic monk and writer, Thomas Merton said that "no man is an island" we all need at least someone else, some other person, to share our joys, sorrows, failures, and faults with. While we might like our independence and solitude we also need each other. After reading this book every character in some way or fashion is seeking someone else to share their life with. We are all, as Bender suggests, living in separate rooms, sometimes living separate lives, yet seeking "the other" to make our life more full, more complete, more open. Karen Bender's new book A Town of Empty Rooms (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press, 2013) takes up these themes as she weaves her latest novel.

The story centers around two central characters Serena and Dan Shine a married couple who relocate to Waring, NC, a Civil War port city in NC, i.e Wilmington (my guess). Serena and Dan are Jewish and while in Waring Serena finds her childhood faith again and finds community in a small established synagogue. Bender heats up the plot as Serena gets embroiled in a community argument between the crazy rabbi and the congregation. Needless to say the plot thickens in more ways than one. Very often writers neglect to show the toxic side of religious life, but here Bender pulls no punches, she reveals all the wrinkles, warts, faults, and foibles of this small aging congregation and how a community can turn on one very quickly. I don't want to reveal too much, I'll let you find out for yourselves!

Needless to say the themes of longing and desire are strong too. Bender weaves a tight story around her husband's relationship with his son who bond in Boy Scout activities and the annual Pine Derby race which has a twist of its own. There is plenty of mystery and mayhem in the book especially regarding Forrest, the Shine's crusty curmudgeon neighbor who wants to "put the Christ back into Christmas" in the local school system.

As a pastor and also member of a minority Christian affiliation (Eastern Orthodox) I had strong affinities with Dan and Serena. Also relocating to NC I encountered a very different type of Christianity than I did in the Northeast as I drove around reading similar billboards on the highway as Bender describes in the book "Jesus Saves" or " Are You Born Again" or the typical bumper sticker, "This car will be unmanned in the rapture." Shocking to say the least. By placing Dan and Serena in Waring, NC Bender calls into question what are their core beliefs, Serena winds up being more committed to her faith while Dan not so much, but the interplay between religious rights and tolerance, between faith and politics. This book would be a great discussion piece on the interplay between religion and society as we navigate the personal and the public and the place of religious life in our culture at large.

What made this book a joy to read was not only the plot and character development but the writing. Bender writes strong sentences with fresh metaphors. The last chapter is worth reading again, especially the last five pages which are very moving.

After reading this novel I agree 100% with Bender that even though we might have our own families or co-workers that in the end we do live alone, and sometimes this isolation can be stifling as we see with Forrest and his wife or it can inspire and encourage us to find connection and communion with those around us. I hope that after reading A Town of Empty Rooms readers will find that one person to share their own story!

Kudos for Bender for writing this novel.

For more information about Karen Bender's book A Town of Empty Rooms click here 

To read more about Karen Bender and her writing in general click here