The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

Lord, I Want To Be In That Number (Review: This Side of Salvation by Jeri Smith-Ready)

This Side of SalvationThis Side of Salvation
Jeri Smith-Ready
Simon Pulse 2014

Life is just beginning for David Cooper.  He's is on the verge of a career in baseball, academically on the up and has, for the first time, a great girlfriend.  For all these good things, David thanks God, relying on his faith to get him through both the fun times and the not so fun.  And there are a few not so fun things going on - a past tragedy that echoes loudly in the present, a father whose mental health is deteriorating alarmingly and a mother who seems unable to steer her family to safety. Until she hears about the Rush. The Rush will swoop all believers up to Heaven where they will have front row seats for the Apocalypse and the Coopers will be up their with the best of them. But David doesn't want to be Rushed. He wants to stay where he is, surrounded by sinners or not. As life unravels before his eyes, David finds himself questioning his family, his friendships and his faith.

David is a nice bloke - kind, funny and thoughtful not to mention focused and driven. Life hasn't been particularly easy for him.  After the death of his brother he got angry - really angry... but then he got religion. Yet David doesn't have unquestioning faith.  He's a smart kid, with smart friends whose beliefs differ from his own and who is happy to examine what he himself believes.  Of all the aspects of his character this is by far the most appealing.  Being able to question ourselves and what we hold most dear is a hard thing to learn and watching David do this while simultaneously hold together a fractured family and lead a normal life is both compelling and moving. However, Smith-Ready hasn't written him as some existential philosopher but rather has presented readers with an utterly believable teenage boy who wants to play baseball and have sex and hang out with his friends. He is completely likable and his undercurrent of grief and desperation is palpably real.

Like David, all the other characters in This Side of Salvation are highly readable. Girlfriend Bailey and best friend Kane are particularly well written. Bailey is a strong proponent of evolutionary theory and Kane is newly out as gay.  Both could have come across as mouthpieces for beliefs and lifestyles that contradict David's own but instead Smith-Ready has created two characters who are completely three dimensional. David's sister, Mara, is fascinating and a bit of an enigma, holding her cards close to her chest while trying to keep David away from the fundamentalist line that she so clearly feels that he might cross. Of all the scenes in the book, the quiet moments between Mara and David hold most resonance and are the most heartbreaking. David's parents are almost frighteningly real in both the grief that they are so frantically trying to suffocate and in their close-minded belief in a rapturous end. His father is a character who is both incredibly sad and incredibly disturbing (and mad props to Smith-Ready for his dialogue, which is written almost entirely in biblical quotations). Finally, there is John, the brother whose untimely death is at the very heart of This Side of Salvation and whose sainted presence haunts each page.

Sport and religion. You won't find reviews of many book containing either in these here hills because I am disinclined to exercise and hate to be preached at.  Amazingly, Smith-Ready has written a title that contains plenty of both but which neither bores nor infuriates.  Yes, there's a lot of baseball, but David's love of the sport is so palpable that it becomes enjoyable to read. The religious aspect could have been trickier - David really does believe in God and it gives his him a great deal of comfort - yet I never felt that his character was A Message For Us All. In fact, Smith-Ready's great achievement in This Side of Salvation is that I came away from the book with absolutely no idea as to what she herself believes - something that I cannot say for any other YA book that I have dealt with where God plays a role. Rather, Smith Ready has taken the idea of religion being the great opiate and examined how this can be both positive and negative in a way that should, and will, make readers think. And hopefully encourage both believers and non-believers to consider or at least understand viewpoints which oppose their own.

This Side of Salvation is a gripping story starting on the night of the Rush and moving between the past and present as events unfold. Also, everyone loves a good cult, so there's that.  More than anything, though, it is a searing portrait of a family drowning in a grief that they cannot get move on from; of parents who are grasping at straws; of children who can do nothing but stand and watch as everything falls apart. It is at times extremely sad but, importantly, also carries a great deal of hope. This is Jeri Smith-Ready's first foray into contemporary YA fiction and it hopefully won't be her last. Her straightforward writing style and ability to create very real characters makes her as natural a fit in this genre as it has in her previously more paranormal outings.  This Side of Salvation is a book that will make you think and hopefully engender many conversations on the nature of faith, grief and family.  Highly recommended.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. This Side of Salvation is available now.  Thank you to the publisher (via Edelweiss) for providing us with a copy of this title to review.
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