Review: GRAY MOUNTAIN by John Grisham (Doubleday/Hodder)

Grisham-GrayMountainUSAn important and interesting topic, but lacklustre storytelling

The year is 2008 and Samantha Kofer’s career at a huge Wall Street law firm is on the fast track — until the recession hits and she gets downsized, furloughed, escorted out of the building. Samantha, though, is one of the “lucky” associates. She’s offered an opportunity to work at a legal aid clinic for one year without pay, after which there would be a slim chance that she’d get her old job back.

In a matter of days Samantha moves from Manhattan to Brady, Virginia, population 2,200, in the heart of Appalachia, a part of the world she has only read about. Mattie Wyatt, lifelong Brady resident and head of the town’s legal aid clinic, is there to teach her how to “help real people with real problems.” For the first time in her career, Samantha prepares a lawsuit, sees the inside of an actual courtroom, gets scolded by a judge, and receives threats from locals who aren’t so thrilled to have a big-city lawyer in town. And she learns that Brady, like most small towns, harbors some big secrets.

Her new job takes Samantha into the murky and dangerous world of coal mining, where laws are often broken, rules are ignored, regulations are flouted, communities are divided, and the land itself is under attack from Big Coal. Violence is always just around the corner, and within weeks Samantha finds herself engulfed in litigation that turns deadly.

I’m a fan of Grisham’s novels — I’ve spent many a pleasant summer or winter binge-reading his novels, and I’ve always been among the eager readers awaiting his latest novel. That’s not to say I love them all; there have been a couple that failed to engage me. The Street Lawyer, for example, which I’ve started about three times, but never finished. A Time To Kill, which was a perfect example of a debut author over-writing and info-dumping their way through an otherwise good story, ruining it in the process (it does not surprise me that it failed to get much traction when first published) — Grisham provided all the details, swamping the story with his desire to include all the legal minutiae. Gray Mountain walks a line somewhere between these two examples.

The novel is packed with detail, but I didn’t find the characters particularly compelling. Thankfully, though, Grisham is a much better writer, now, and it wasn’t much of a chore to read the novel. It felt far more like reading an over-long piece of narrative non-fiction and/or investigative journalism. Having spent quite some time reading and working around the topics, politics and legal issues that form the crux of the novel, I was also interested to see how he might write about them. For the main, it turns out he really knows his topic. Whenever he is recounting the plight of the coal miner in Appalachia, or describing the ways in which corporations and their lawyers (not to mention their pet politicians) have rigged the system against the “little people”, you get a sense of the passion that has driven him to write the novel. The picture he paints is extremely bleak. I would say “unAmerican”, but sadly it’s becoming increasingly clear that it may be all-too-American, given the direction of contemporary politics, Supreme Court rulings, and so forth.

Grisham-GrayMountainUKThat being said, the passion he brings to the subject material fails to materialise around the characters he’s written into the novel. I really couldn’t connect with the protagonist, Samantha, nor her colleagues. They were flat, and quite dull, predictable. Most aren’t given enough space to develop in any meaningful way. The antagonists were equally uninspired. And, because I failed to develop much of a connection with Samantha, I never became invested in her various professional and/or personal quandaries: should she stay in Brady? Is she interested in Jeff enough to stay in Brady? Should she accept this sweet offer from a former boss? I never cared. Ultimately, the characters and their lives became just so much white noise. They come across as props necessary to make the author’s point, rather than real characters who are living within this environment. The frequent jumps forward in time, to add an element of realism to the pace of the type of trials Grisham’s writing about, didn’t help matters, only making the reader more disconnected from Samantha’s introduction to and acclimation in Brady.

It felt very much like Grisham had a topic he really wanted to write about — and it’s certainly one that fits very nicely into a Grisham-style novel — but he maybe was so focused on the issues, legal details and politics, that he forgot to bring his storytelling mojo. This is not among Grisham’s best storytelling. It’s well-written, in terms of prose and so forth, so maybe we could consider it among his best narrative reporting/journalism…?

If you’re a fan of the author, and are interested in the topic, then I would certainly recommend it. However, if you’re a less-than-fervent fan you might find this a little flat.

***

Gray Mountain is out now, published by Doubleday in North America and Hodder in the UK.

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