Lookout by Christine Byl

This astonishing novel of work, love, community and forgiveness in 20th-century rural Montana will leave readers forever changed for the better.

Christine Byl’s Lookout is an unforgettable novel, both stunning and subtle, written with nuance and compassion. With all the down-to-earth lyricism displayed in her memoir, Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods, Byl transports readers to rural Montana in the 1980s, ’90s and 2000s, where the Kinzler family lives, works and loves. These characters, whose bonds are gorgeously rendered and even inspirational in their imperfections, are deeply lovable.

Josiah Kinzler’s family history includes alcoholism and suicide; he is alone in the world before he is 20 but possesses land, skills, a work ethic and strong ties to his neighbors. He marries Margaret Blanchard. Together they eke out a living in her father’s hardware store and eventually through Josiah’s highly regarded furniture-making and woodworking. Their two daughters, Louisa and Cody, are remarkably different from one another but as fiercely loving as their parents. The family will grow into nontraditional shapes, but its members never lose their commitment to one another. Each is complicated, fully developed and sensitively drawn.

Chapters shift between a third-person perspective and the first-person voices of various characters–not only the central Kinzlers but also various members of their community. In this way, Byl offers triangulations on events and characters. These secondary characters’ perspectives enrich the story enormously, as when a neighbor who has known Josiah from childhood observes the latter’s marriage and fatherhood: “He loves those girls, and I can see his ease with them that I have not found with my own sons.” Montana in the 1980s and ’90s is not without its problems: gay characters struggle to find acceptance, and American Indians’ claims to the land are dismissed. Families and individuals struggle with mental illness and addiction. But Byl treats the people and their problems–even the shortsighted ones–with grace and frankness. Frequently, characters do the same for one another.

Lookout, which contains evocative expressions of love, is lush in its descriptions of relationships, the natural world and Josiah’s exquisite woodworking. Byl writes with an attention to the details of her characters and setting: “A heavy snow in early May buried pasqueflowers and daffodils and the barely rising shoots that would become the season’s crops, but by the end of the month, the sun lit up like a match.” Cody and her father are similarly laconic and watchful; they share a special bond, as displayed in a stunningly beautiful scene in which he proudly watches her run a chainsaw just as she was taught. Many of the relationships and family systems represented are unconventional–but sensitive and thoughtful. Lookout specializes in the quiet observation of transcendent truths about many facets of life.

This review originally ran in the January 26, 2023 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 10 dried pansy petals.

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