In 1972, Neil Countryman meets John William Barry during an 800-metre race. Both are teenagers from different schools, and very different backgrounds. The racetrack meeting changes the course of their lives forever. It is from this moment, until late in Neil’s life, that Guterson’s novel unravels. Drifting effortlessly between schooldays, college years and adulthood, from mansions to the rainforests of Washington State and to basement apartments, The Other tells of an extraordinary friendship underpinned by the fierce intelligence and eccentricity of John William.
Guterson’s novel is a fascinating rumination on the choices we make in life, how they affect our character, and vice versa. It is an accomplished study, executed finely by a master craftsman: in John William, Guterson develops an intricate character over the course of the novel, a character that feels fully formed at the start and yet grows in complexity and depth as the novel progresses. Equally, of course, Guterson is so very skilled at explicating a character in the space of a single sentence (as seen in The Country Ahead of Us, The Country Behind).
The Other is a novel so sublimely sorrowful and joyful at the same time. It reflects life beautifully: at times tender and at times harsh. Uplifting and crushing. Comic and tragic. Reading it, I felt that it was part of the world, like a carving on a huge rock face that has existed for centuries in the forests Guterson describes so well. The Other exists timelessly, for its wisdom and tenderness. Like John William, it should be celebrated for it. Guterson’s power seems to be growing. Long may it continue.