Audiobook Review: A Gift Upon the Shore by M.K. Wren

14 09 2012

A Gift Upon the Shore by M.K. Wren

Read by Gabra Zackman

Audible Frontiers

Length: 15 Hrs 9 Min

Genre: Nuclear Post Apocalypse

Quick Thoughts: A Gift Upon the Shore is one of my all time favorite novels, a darkly beautiful vision of a nuclear apocalypse. This novel stands apart from many within the genre by its frightening realism and its strong female characters. Narrator Gabra Zackman captures the poetry of the novel perfectly, making it a wonderful example of how good an audiobook can be.

Grade: A+

Note: As this is a reread, I will be breaking away from my normal format. I will be much more longwinded, so fair warning.

Some of the first Post Apocalyptic novels I had read featured dark fantasy and supernatural elements. These books, particularly Stephen King’s The Stand and Robert McCammon’s Swan Song where listed as horror novels. This was an apt labeling because both of these novels scared the crap out of me, yet it wasn’t for supernatural elements. The realities of a Post Apocalyptic scenario are pretty darn scary without adding dark demons and mystical powers. I first read MK Wren’s post nuclear vision A Gift Upon the Shore in the mid nineties. This novel was really a pivotal one for me as a reader, and as a fan of Apocalyptic novels. A Gift Upon the Shore is just as horrific as King or McCammon’s Apocalyptic classics, yet without any mythological Dark Man wreaking havoc on the survivors. It brilliantly captures the reality of a desolate land, of nuclear winter, of surviving without the creature comforts that we have grown used to. It also stands out among Post Apocalyptic fiction for many reasons. So many Post Apocalyptic books are essentially road novels. The mechanism of the Apocalypse comes, and our survivors travel through the nightmare landscape searching for some haven. A Gift Upon the Shore isn’t like that at all, it is a stationary tale. We follow our survivors as they try to adapt to their surrounding on a farm on the Shores of Oregon. Yet, the major reason A Gift Upon the Shore stands out for me is that our two main characters are both women.

There is a scene about midway through this novel that has always angered me. Well, admittedly, there are many scenes in this book that frustrate, anger and sadden me, but this one stands out. Our two survivors, Mary Hope and Rachel Morrow had been living in this changed world for years, overcoming the hardships of isolation and doing it successfully. They have worked their farm, kept their livestock alive and made a decent life together. Then one day Mary discovers a man, deathly ill on the shores near their farm. She rescues him and nurses him to health. The man, Luke, on the road to recovery, is shocked to hear that Mary and Rachel, two women, had survived all this time without anyone else, particularly men. "It’s a miracle," he declares. Now, this is only the first of a series of misogynistic comments he makes. It really angered me. I mean, really angered. The idea that these two women who I have grown to love and respect have only survived because of the intervention of God angered me so very much. The strange thing was, at this point in my life, I was pretty misogynistic. And also pretty religious. Now, honestly, I was relatively open minded, especially in the religious culture I was raised in. Yet, this was mostly in my mind, and rarely applied to my actions. If you would have asked me then if I was misogynistic, I would have declared "Oh, no." But, in some ways I was. In fact, I hesitated on reading A Gift Upon the Shore, because it was written by a woman. Oh, I had my reasons. I declared that I never connected with novels written by women, not that they were in any way inferior.

This is just one area where A Gift Upon the Shore really took me out of my comfort zone and forced me to evaluate myself. Here are two strong women, one agnostic and one an atheist, who show more love and compassion than the religious characters that they deal with throughout the novel. Sure, I know this is just fiction, but something really resonated about these characters to me. I was devastated by the weakness of men, a weakness that I have seen often in my life. I was ashamed by the way that the religious picked and chose passages from the Bible to support their hate, yet declared any passages that decried their behavior as misinterpreted and patently manipulated. This too, I have seen way too often.  A Gift Upon the Shore opened my eyes to the human character in ways that only the greatest fiction can. In doing that, it turned the mirror on myself, forcing me to see my own faults and evaluate my own behavior.

The Book

“I will call it the Chronicle of Rachel”

Mary Hope is an old woman living on the farm on the Coast of Oregon. She lives in an uneasy relationship with a religious community that she allowed to move onto the property, under the condition that she be allowed to teach the children. One woman fears her influence, and finds her teachings to be sacrilegious and believes Mary to be a witch. Fearing her time is growing shorter, Mary takes on an apprentice, a young boy, who she shares the story of her survival of the nuclear war that ravaged the earth. She tells the story of Rachel Morrow, a strong woman who believed her purpose in life was to protect the record of the past, by preserving and protecting books. Yet, as the conflict within the community grows, Mary begins to fear that Rachel’s legacy, and the minds of the future are in serious jeopardy.

A Gift Upon the Shore is an achingly beautiful, emotional ride through a nuclear Apocalypse. Wren creates an almost dark beauty as she describes the blight that is done to the earth. From scorched landscapes to nuclear winter, Wren’s vision is horrific in its reality, yet stunningly beautiful in its detail. Wren writes with a lavish, almost poetic style, yet manages to keep the story quite accessible. There is no conflict between style and substance in the novel, the both blend together in a sort of dance that manages to delight the mind while telling a good story. The novel twists between Mary’s present and her past, slowly building in tension and scope. There is an ominous mood that grows throughout the novel, a feeling that something horrible is coming, some devastating moment that will alter everything. Yet, when that moment does come, it is unexpected, and tragic.

This was my third experience with A Gift Upon the Shore and the first in audio form. I always expect to be disappointed when I reread a novel. I expect that some of the beauty will have washed off, or the excitement lessened in the retelling. Yet, I’m not sure if it’s because of it being an audiobook, or just that I am older, but I left this experience loving the novel even more. There were moments that I was simply devastated by the actions of characters, even though I knew it was coming. There is one moment in this novel that truly just broke my heart… again. It’s such a moment of weakness, an inexcusable moment of inaction, that I raged against it, hoping that this time, it might be different. I think, there can be no greater praise for a novel than this. That it affects you in such a way that the emotional impact grows with each experience.

Writing this review is actually quite hard for me. My initial reaction is that I want to grab everybody by the throat and shake them until the promise me they will read this. I want people to experience this with me. This novel is one of my all time favorite reads. It is a literary Post Apocalyptic novel written before such things were vogue. I would easily put it up against the giants of the genre, from The Road. to even A Canticle for Leibowitz, as the ultimate Literary Post Apocalyptic novel. Maybe you scoff at this, but, you can’t really argue with me on the subject until you read the book. And, that’s all I want. Read this book.

The Audiobook

About a year ago I wrote a post on my all time favorite Post Nuclear Apocalypse novels, in which A Gift Upon the Shore is number two. In that post, I attempted to cast the narrators for novels with no audiobook version. For this novel, my choice was pretty easy. I had chosen XE Sands, a narrator with a perfect style for this novel. She has a mature but poetic style of narration that just fit, and it didn’t hurt that she is actually from the Pacific Northwest.

Now, when I actually found out that A Gift Upon the Shore was made into an audiobook, I was a bit scared. I just had a really bad experience with an Audible Frontiers production of a classic Post Apocalyptic novel, which was cast with a male narrator despite it being from a female point of view. My first reaction, and you all can check twitter if you don’t believe me, was that if I discovered a male narrator for this novel, I was heading straight to Newark. Yes, I was willing to brave Newark to declare my ire for poor casting decisions. Luckily, I discovered that the novel was being read by new to me narrator Gabra Zackman.

Gabra Zackman was simply wonderful. I can’t tell you, as a lover of this novel, how blown away I was by her performance. Zackman’s vice managed to accentuate the poetry of the prose, wring out each drop of emotion with every well spoken word. She never rushed her reading but allowed the story to come alive in a measured pace. Her tones were rich and mature, vividly displaying the world, highlighting both its beauty and ugliness. Her characters were perfectly done. She captured Mary’s naiveté, Rachel’s strength, Luke’s uncertainness, and Miriam’s spite, yet did it in a natural authentic way. Simply put, I loved every moment of it. A Gift Upon the Shore is an example of how good an audiobook can be when the right narrator is matched with the text. Zackman managed to take a novel I have come to love, and opened it up in new and unexpected ways.

Note: This review is part of my weekly Welcome to the Apocalypse series.

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2 responses

14 09 2012
russell1200

I am glad it made the transition to the spoken rendition well. That has to be nerve racking. Maybe even more so than when a movie comes out, because it stays so much closer to the original.

I read this a long time ago – very likely when it first came out in paperback. It is one of those odd books, that I remember liking, but just don’t really remember the story line- even with prompting. I intend to reread it at some point. But I already have a large stack in front of me.

In thinking of it, I have read thousands of books. But how many of them do I really remember? Non-fiction, I think most of them, fiction I find to be a much ifier proposition.

12 06 2013
A Gift Upon the Shore | Care's Online Book Club

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