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Lark Ascending: A Novel by Silas House

It’s time for another book review by Don Noble. This week, Don reviews “Lark Ascending” by Silas House.

“Lark Ascending” is a beautiful novel. It is terrifying, depressing, exciting, hopeful and beautiful. The world has gone mad, but individual humans can still bond and love and save one another. Silas House has taken his turn here at a very particular kind of novel—the story set in the near future. These novels are rarely utopian. They are more often apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic, and this one, like Nevil Shute’s “On the Beach” or Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” certainly is.

Robert Frost had his say on this subject years ago in “Fire and Ice.” “Some say the world will end in fire. Some say in ice.” It turns out fire was the right answer. In “Lark Ascending,” our narrator Lark is 90 years old, telling of the weeks of his youth when he and his family fled from their home in Maryland to the woods of Maine to escape the worldwide fires. Australia burned, then Africa, then most of Europe. The fires in California, which we see often on the evening news, had gone utterly out of control and moved east, consuming everything. Crops burn, starvation is widespread, all the animals eaten. Pets have been euthanized rather than let them starve.

In the chaos that erupts, there is a kind of civil war. The right-wing Fundamentalists have risen up and taken over, now resisted by the rebels. Lark’s mother explains: “we have to fight back because they want everyone to be just like them. They want us to follow their rules.”All homosexuality is banned. Married gay and lesbian couples are “disappeared” as if they were in Argentina 30 years ago. Catholics and Muslims are detained.

Lark and his family walk to Nova Scotia and board a perilously overcrowded sailboat to get to Ireland, reputed to be one of the last places on earth to accept American refugees. One catastrophe after another ensues, and Lark finds himself alone, cast up on the beach in southwest Ireland, but in Ireland the British “nays,” presumably descendants of the Brexiteers, are in charge again and mean to exterminate immigrants, Catholics and people of color.

Lark, a gay young man, is frightened and alone until he finds Seamus, a beagle and perhaps the last dog on the island. Seamus, strong, smart and loyal, had been taught not to bark, a crucial skill in evading patrols. These two, joined by a strange and powerful old woman searching for her son, will make a “family,” and trek across Ireland through green lonely meadows and burned-over places to Glendalough, an ancient holy place in the Wicklow Mountains where ley lines cross and produce a “thin place,” a spot where the wall between this world and the next is diaphanous. Only Lark, like Ishmael, lives to tell the tale. Others have survived elsewhere but the road back to a kind and humane civilization will be long and uncertain.

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.