“A Land Without Sin” by Paula Huston (Slant Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 301 pages. $27)
Paula Huston’s second novel is one of complex and intertwining layers exemplifying the darkness of evil experienced through the ages and across various cultures. But it is also the story of the resilient human soul seeking truth and connection. The cynical, irreverent narrator is freelance photographer Eva Kovic, only 34 but with a resume replete with battlefield photojournalism. She is at home in international hotspots, in jungles, or amid revolutionaries. As the story opens in 1993, Eva has taken a job accompanying Jan Bource, a scholar of the Mayan culture, to Central America to photograph ancient Mayan pyramid interiors. She doesn’t tell her new employer that she is using this job as a cover to track down her missing older brother, Stefan, a priest stationed in a diocese in southern Mexico where insurgent rebels are increasingly active.
Although the intricacies of Central American politics, Zapatista revolutionary zeal, and ancient Mayan culture may challenge readers, this character-driven story moves along briskly and sustains interest. The main characters are believable, and Eva especially is likeable, even when she is being antagonistic to people who have only love and concern for her. She recognized that “good was something I could never be, so I had an urge to stifle it when I saw it.”
Her relationship with Jan’s wife is particularly poignant in its eventual shift from antipathy to deep admiration. Eva’s skeptical nature and emotional apathy begin to erode when new experiences and relationships cause her to question her long-held beliefs and open her heart to authentic friendship. “Someone who helped you see who you are without having to slam the door behind him, who could point out those gaps inside of you, the rotted planks you’re in danger of falling through into the black hole at the center of yourself if you don’t look around. Maybe I needed, more than most, someone who could do that for me. Because look at the family I came from.”
A bitter and dysfunctional family fostered Eva’s jaded perspective on life. Their family history provides a bleak and brooding background to Eva and Stefan’s childhood in a Croatian enclave of Chicago. When violence from the family’s past seeps into the present, the siblings respond differently to this pervasive darkness; Eva becomes hardened and stubbornly self-reliant while Stefan turns to the church and its promise of redemption. They take radically different paths in life and their opposing views on faith form a gulf Eva feels cannot be bridged, “like someone standing on one side of a giant chasm, waving a confident, friendly wave, not realizing that you, stuck on the other side, have no way of crossing over.” Even so, Stefan has provided the only example she knows of unconditional love. She and Stefan have a deep bond forged by sharing the horrors of their family history, a bond that leads them to try to save each other from what is seen as a threat.
Stefan might remind you of a priest from a Graham Greene novel: a flawed Catholic priest deep in his own theological battles and profound questions about the nature of sin and sacrifice. But Huston’s rich and precise language in “A Land Without Sin” brings to life unique characters in a compelling story of social upheaval, personal sacrifice, and the darkness of evil.