Review: Virgil Wander

Virgil Wander Virgil Wander by Leif Enger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Leif Enger, whose previous works Peace Like a River and So Brave, Young and Handsome have drawn much praise, has authored a quiet jewel of a book in Virgil Wander. The Virgil of the title is a quiet man living in fictional Greenstone, Minnesota, a fading mine town. Virgil, like many in the town, holds two jobs. By day he's the town clerk, and by night he runs the Empress, a failing movie theater with low attendance and a fascinating if problematic stash of contraband films inherited from the previous owner. As the novel opens, Virgil has managed to survive losing control of his car, which crashed through a barricade into Lake Superior. Rescued, as his car (and cell phone) plummets to the bottom of the lake, Virgil sustains a brain injury that affects both his language and to no small degree his disposition. As his brain heals and he recovers his adjective vocabulary, Virgil is more open to things and people, more willing to take a bit of a chance. He sees the world a little differently after the accident, and it's not just because of his vertigo. This new openness changes his life and the world around him. The rich secondary characters include Rune, a visiting Norwegian man who's come to Greenstone looking for stories of his disappeared son Alec a son he never knew or met, Nadine who is Alec's presumed widow, Bjorn who is Alec's son, the Pea family, and the malevolent and mysterious Adam Leer, all members of the Greenstone community. Greenstone has evolved a bad luck reputation since the closing of its mines, but the people who remain there are trying to rebuild the town. Virgil is in no small way central to that idea.

There are quiet traces of magical realism in this book, from the magical way our brain processes information, and from Virgil's own sense of the numinous. There is a quiet battle between good an evil in Greenstone. While some have compared Virgil Wander to Garrison Keillor's NPR show Lake Wobegon, I find Enger's beautiful writing to be far more similar to that of Norman Maclean and William Maxwell, which is no small praise. This isn't a flashy book, but it is one full of hope in the face of loss and the power of second chances. Carpe diem, indeed.

I received a Digital Review Copy and a paper review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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