Whispers in the Alders by W. A. Callum is an American based coming of age story. It is a thought provoking, lyrical novel that is permeated with an air of tragedy.
The novel is written in first person narrative from the point of view of Aubrey Worthington, the only child of an affluent couple. Due to the peripatetic nature of her father’s job, Aubrey has spent her life moving around the country which has made it hard for her to fit in. She’s a lonely, introspective girl until her arrival at Alder Ferry when she is thirteen. It is here that she forms a deep friendship with local boy, Tommy.
Callum uses his novel to raise lots of interesting ideas. Aubrey’s father is the Vice President of a conglomerate that takes over companies, assimilating their contracts and ultimately making the workers redundant. Aubrey refers to her father as the “grim reaper”. What’s unusual is the way that we see how Stuart Worthington’s job impacts upon his daughter who, along with her father becomes hated by the communities in which they live. The Worthingtons buy their first home in Alder Ferry, a grand colonial house which is ironic given the nature of Stuart’s job. Although we sympathise with the concept of the workers losing their jobs Callum does not humanise them enough to allow us any perspective other than that of Aubrey.
Callum is obviously a skilled writer and his use of language is complex and dense. This is particularly the case when he describes the woods that are overlooked by Aubrey’s house. The house is personified as “The Grand Old Lady” and her surroundings are presented as somewhat mystical. The trees that form the Alders are given a life of their own, evoking both energy and a sense of peace that Aubrey has not known before.
The small town of Alder Ferry is also brought to life through Callum’s language. The desolation of the town and lack of opportunity cements the Catholic Church as the centre of the community. The novel questions the way this power allows abuse within the church to be overlooked as people are afraid to challenge the Priest’s authority and potentially lose the only sense of certainty that they have.
Alton “Tommy” Mackey is the heart of the novel. He is the grandson of Stuart Worthington’s nemesis, Mike Genardo and Aubrey’s only friend. Mike Genardo is the head of the union and a brutal drunk who subjects Tommy to a childhood defined by fear and loneliness. Tommy’s only refuge is reading and writing poetry and despite little encouragement or education, he is a talented, intelligent boy who inspires Aubrey to embrace her own learning. Tommy struggles with his sexuality and it is only in adulthood that he is able to accept who he is and find some semblance of happiness.
The comparison between Tommy and Aubrey is stark and really brings home the inequality of an education system dependent on wealth. Aubrey’s affluent background ensures that she goes to a good university despite that fact that it is Tommy who edits her work. Meanwhile Tommy is unable to fulfil his potential and has to join the Coast Guards in order to raise the money to pay for some classes at the community college.
If Tommy is the heart of the story then, for me, Aubrey is its Achilles heel. I really didn’t like her and didn’t fully understand whether I was supposed to. Initially I assumed that she was a purposefully unreliable witness to the events she was describing. Her childhood wasn’t ideal with a driven, morally bankrupt father and functioning alcoholic mother but she presented as a whiney, self-obsessed voice. I felt that Callum had maybe chosen not to humanise the parents in order to depict the simplistic, self-involved way that children see life. However about two thirds of the way in it became clear that there was no ambiguity and they were in fact the monsters that Aubrey described as were most of the residents of Alder Ferry. I wonder if the story might have benefitted from a lighter touch and less of a sense that everything is in black and white.
As I have said Callum’s skill as writer is never in any doubt, his use of language is extremely impressive. However, strangely I found that the complexity of the language sometimes got in the way of the narrative as it slowed everything down. None the less, this is a novel that is well worth reading as it raises so many relevant questions.
If you’re looking for something that may not be an easy read but will certainly get you thinking then I recommend that you give this one a try.