The Blackberry Bush, by David Housholder, is not what you'd expect to pick up on the shelves of most Christian bookstores. In fact you may not even find a copy in most traditional Christian fiction venues, which is regrettable because the novel sets out to do something important-- make you think about faith, about its delicately woven threads, rough and silken alike, that bind generations together in a work of grace. In Housholder's novel, these threads bind lives together, through brokenness and triumph, to tell a story of God's presence in even the darkest aspects of fallen humanity. That's a lot of big ideas to cram into a relatively short novel.
But then, you get the idea that Housholder is no stranger to big ideas. His bio describes him as An avid philosophical-spiritual influencer and surfer, who currently leads an indie-warehouse California beach church, where he dreams and works for a better world. This is a guy who wants to peel back the skin of things, who isn't afraid of messy or complicated faith. You can see all of those influences in The Blackberry Bush, though at times they seem convoluted or contrived.
The novel's narrative seems clear enough as we are taken through the lives and struggles of two young people whose family history is powerfully-- and tragically-- linked.
Kati, a German with a penchant for classic Swiss watches and attic treasure-hunting, is crushed with disappointment for never being “enough” for anyone—most especially her mother. Craving liberation, Kati and Josh seem destined to claim their birthright of freedom together. After all, don’t the “chance” encounters transform your life…or are they really chance?For all its compelling ideas, both fictional and philosophical, and for its compelling characters, The Blackberry Bush stumbles in its execution. Too many plot elements are over-compressed so that key events of the story lack the weight the reader knows they are meant to carry. I especially found this true for Josh in one scene which he is shown committing an act of betrayal without any preceding scenes to develop his motivation for such sudden aggression. Show don't tell could be a rule this author takes more closely to heart. As compelling and vibrant as his characters are, I kept wanting more of them....to see in greater detail their lives and struggles, to go through those struggles with them and experience their sorrow and joy.
But the author's heart clearly is more for the ideas behind his narrative than the fictional narrative itself. He frequently interjects theological musing-- even to the detriment of the narrative-- as if desperately trying to get us to see the tapestry of ideas that he sees and is trying to communicate to us. This is a trap of many "theological novels". What gets more attention-- the Big Ideas or the characters and situations in which those ideas are played out? Housholder does an admirable job of attempting balance, and of addressing issues relevant to today's culture, but his success is mixed. At times I felt I was reading an elongated sermon illustration rather than a novel. Aspects of his attempts to identify with modern culture felt forced, as did the suddenly optimistic ending, though this could have been a product of the overall compression of the narrative.
Taken as a whole, The Blackberry Bush is worth reading. Housholder's heavy emphasis on the impact of family on the shaping of a young person's life will generate plenty of discussion, as will his ideas on the soft relentlessness of grace. I will be interested to see what ideas he chooses to explore in his next novel, and applaud his willingness to challenge the Christian fiction art form.
The Blackberry Bush may be purchased on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. For more information on David Housholder, check out his blog at Robinwood Church