By Meredith Egan. Amity Publishers, 2016. 446 pages. $17.99/paperback; $5.99/eBook.
Meredith Egan’s debut novel, Just Living, explores the ideas embedded within its rich title in various ways. Beth Hill, the young narrator and protagonist studying to become an Anglican priest, is searching in her own life both for her vocation and a simple life of service in love. In the process of accompanying her through a very significant period in her life journey, the reader confronts a series of questions that the novel poses about what justice—in the context of crime and punishment—means and could mean differently were we to take a different approach to treating those who break established laws. And since the title also refers to a place—Just Living is the halfway house for criminal offenders where Beth works as an intern—its meanings reverberate even further in the novel, keeping questions of justice and living in right order in the forefront of the reader’s consciousness.
Through Beth’s eyes, we get a first-person account of her internship at Just Living, a place where and because of which she meets a number of other characters. This panoply provides a rich warp upon which to weave the novel’s plot, and Beth experiences moments of great exhilaration (like when she helps with the construction of an outdoor walking labyrinth at the facility or participates in some deeply personal sharing there) as well as failure (like when she disregards the strict protocols at Just Living for visitors). While some of the characters could be more fully developed, there are great portraits here, like that of Cook, the warm and understanding halfway house chef and cookie baker who befriends Beth. At one point, the novel describes him, wryly I’d say, as having “meaty arms.”
In addition to the people she meets at Just Living, Beth’s friends and family form another set of characters within the novel’s wide scope. Her father, an Anglican priest who wants Beth to follow in the family business, presents as both demanding and understanding. Her friend Glenn, another priest, faces his own dilemmas within both his marriage and vocation. And there’s a burgeoning romance between Beth and a former monk, whose thoughtful approach to life and his attendance at Quaker meeting may make him particularly interesting for readers of Friends Journal.
In part because its narrative strategy clangs a bit—it jumps between Beth’s first-person point of view sections, which make up the bulk of the novel, and other third- and first-person accounts, which are limited in number and scope—and in part because the large cast of characters makes it difficult to provide fully rich portraits of everyone, the novel may not cohere as a work of fiction as well as it could. But if it might be found lacking on such fronts, the book’s focus on the key themes of vocation and justice provides much to consider regarding pressing issues of our day and how spiritually minded people might meet their challenges.
Set in British Columbia, both in Vancouver and remoter parts of the province, Just Living explores, in very tangible ways, the ups and downs of restorative justice work. Quakers will find this novel’s questions—often posed directly in prayers that begin or close chapters, but also raised more tangentially throughout the book—challenging, to say the least. Beth interacts with any number of characters whose lives have been torn apart by both their own deeds and the brutal legacies of colonialism, particularly the residential schools that forced indigenous peoples into devastating losses of self, family, and culture. There are never easy ways to pinpoint, therefore, responsibility for crimes, and the novel, especially through its climax (foreshadowed early on), places its reader in the difficult position of not being able to say clearly where good and bad ultimately lodge. Like Beth, whose vocational quest takes her through the ups and downs of the correctional system, we bounce about as readers in the face of the difficult queries the novel poses.
Reading the book, I felt a lot like the well-intentioned but dislocated Beth who, in the novel’s opening scene, ends up impersonating a real priest while trying to get someone released from police custody following a protest. It’s a book that, rightly, asks its reader to face the ways in which each of us is an impostor of sorts, especially as we view the issues of criminal justice from the relative comfort of our homes and meetings for worship. And I appreciate it when a book makes me feel uncomfortable in that way.