The writing was lyrical, and the book was interesting, and it did keep me reading, but I find that I'm still on the fence about what I think of this book. It's one of those books that I feel like nothing really 'happens' even though stuff does happen, and with books like that I often wonder, 'well, what was the point?' come the end of the book, and this is one of those books. Most of the story is told as flashback or recollection. The narrator recalls experiences from his childhood and family stories that have mostly been told to him by his father, grandfather, and stepfather. In that respect I suppose it is a novel of family stories or lore as it were as the narrator also shares that he has or will share these same family stories with his own three daughters (although this is not depicted in the book; in fact, while his daughters and wife are mentioned several times in the book, all four women remain faceless characters who never make an actual appearance in the story). There is also the impression that there is some touch of the supernatural or mythical about the village of Sawgamet, but what that is or why is never fully explored or addressed. It's kept largely as an underlying, subtle theme that permeates the narrator's childhood and family lore, just as the mentions of the oddities of Sawgamet are just that--something that is mentioned but never fully explained.
Stephen, an Anglican priest, returns to the village of his birth and childhood to take over the Anglican congregation upon his stepfather's retirement from the priesthood. Stephen's homecoming with his wife and children after two decades spent away coincides with his mother's dying days. Upon Stephen's return he begins to reflect upon both his childhood in Sawgamet and the family stories told him during his childhood. These are the stories of how his parents met and married, how his paternal grandfather came to found the small village by the river, how his paternal grandparents met, and other childhood experiences in the village and its surrounding woods. Some stories have the tinge of family lore about them, others have the whiff of mythical magic about them, such as those that tell of frightening encounters with malevolent, rotting, unkempt, stench ridden wood witches and other odd beings. This is very much a storyteller's story that focuses most on the stories of the men on Stephen's father's side of the family.
Stephen's family is one to whom tragedy is no stranger; Stephen's family's very history in Sawgamet is in fact born of hardship and tragedy. His paternal grandfather abandons his son in the wake of the untimely death of his wife and the boy's mother following one of the hardest winters the village has ever survived before or since, while Stephen's father and sister are taken by an accident on the ice of the river. When Stephen's long absent grandfather returns, purportedly to bring his long dead wife back from the grave, old wounds are opened up in the family, and Stephen's eyes are opened to the unsettling oddities of Sawgamet and its woods.
--Reviewed by Ms. Angie