A mature voice: The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind by David Guterson

It is alarming how effortlessly Guterson paints a character. He needs only a few words drawn into a sentence or two to show his reader almost everything about a character. Guterson’s skill is in giving his reader almost the whole person in an instant. It is a sensation so rarely found in fiction, that of seeing a character as vividly as you see the lady opposite you on the bus, as she yawns and looks apprehensively through the free newspaper at the outcome of dinner tonight.

This slim volume contains 10 short stories. Each contains a different cast of characters; although they shade the pages temporarily Guterson’s characterisations are so complete that you feel as if you’ve read an entire novel on every one. Each story in this touching collection manages to dismantle the minutiae of a man’s life (the old hunter who deliberately leaves behind his gun on his last trip, the brothers who have to move to the city so their father can work) while simultaneously looking objectively at how a man forges his identity: the experiments of childhood, the upheavals of maturity, the disappointment of age.

The collection shines with honesty as it explores the crises that trouble men of varying ages, exposing their flaws and their beauty. Country is an immense achievement in subtlety and precision of language. And it is also one of the most quietly affecting books I’ve read in a long time.

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