I had a lot of theological problems with William Paul Young’s bestselling Christian novel, “The Shack,” but it was a very well-written book. Poignant and thought-provoking without being heavy-handed, it did an excellent job of maintaining narrative credibility. Since then, a variety of other writers have attempted to emulate Young’s success, authoring parable-style stories expressing biblical truth in unique ways.
When I was offered the opportunity to review motivational speaker Michael Neale’s first novel, “The River,” I was intrigued. “The River” has been favorably compared to “The Shack” by a number of publications, and has received rave reviews from other Christian writers.
“The River” is the simply-told story of Gabriel Clarke, the son of a river-rafting guide who watched his father drown at a young age. Since then, Gabriel has been paralyzed by fear. The novel (told in a vaguely bildungsroman format) traces his development into manhood, and the process by which he re-enters into a relationship with the great river.
No, it’s not exactly subtle – and while there’s certainly nothing wrong with exploring theodicy through literature, “The River” never really proves itself worthy of the acclaim it’s garnered.
Most problematically, the pacing is dreadful. A very promising first act gives way to an underwhelming second, and the third is even more sluggish. There’s a provocative twist at the book’s end, but Neale rapidly dispenses with the resulting turmoil. Didacticism has little place in Christian art (or art in general); Neale admirably resists the temptation for the first 150 pages, but ultimately succumbs by the book’s end.
For that matter, not enough time is expended on Gabriel’s inner struggle and development. Almost without exception, the book follows a “move-from-point-A-to-point-B” plot structure that feels remarkably soulless. Neale has evidently not mastered the canon of “showing, rather the telling” – again and again, paragraphs of chunky exposition upset the flow of the book. Dialogue is also rough – it’s not awful, but it never quite sounds genuine.
If I’m reading a Christian novel, particularly one addressing the “problem of evil,” I want to feel the heartache of the protagonists. I don’t necessarily want everything tied up with a nice little bow on top. I want to read about characters who doubt and wrestle with God, and perhaps ultimately choose to seek Him even though they’re breaking on the inside. Not once, throughout the entirety of “The River,” did I truly feel Gabriel’s inner conflict. This is probably a result of the exposition-choked prose, but it also stems from a too-neat plot.
That’s not to say there’s nothing praiseworthy in “The River.” The book is gorgeously atmospheric, and scenes from Gabriel’s childhood pop with cinematic clarity. As some who’s done class-5 whitewater rafting, I can affirm that Neale’s sumptuous descriptions of the river are entirely accurate. These beautiful vignettes, unfortunately, are few and far between.
Is it worth reading?
Probably not. Its theology is certainly less problematic than “The Shack,” but its literary quality is significantly inferior. Milton and Dostoevsky wrote more compelling discussions of the same issue – what human evil says about the character of God – but were far more adept at doing so. Save your money and grab a copy of “Crime and Punishment.”
A weak “Shack” clone devoid of real passion.
* I received this book free as part of a book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”