The Long Way Home by Louise Penny

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Reviewed by Ann

In many respects, How the Light Gets In, Louise Penny’s previous novel about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, tied up a plethora of loose ends.  Throughout the earlier books in the series Gamache had not only to investigate the murders that came under his jurisdiction as Head of Homicide in the Sûreté du Québec, but also to do battle with the forces of evil that lay at the heart of the judicial and political establishment itself.  In How the Light Gets In those forces were finally exposed for what they were and defeated, albeit at a terrible cost to the Chief Inspector himself.     However, those readers who have followed the series from its inception will be well aware that one loose end still remains dangling.  In the small village of Three Pines, where so many of Gamache’s investigations have led him and to which he and his wife, Reine-Marie, have now retired, Clara Morrow still waits to see what will happen when her estranged husband, Peter, returns after their year’s separation.

Three Pines is at the heart of Penny’s creation.  It is the community to which we all aspire, the group of friends to which we would all love to belong.  Any reader who has encountered the people who live there must have ached to spend time talking, laughing and most definitely eating in Olivier and Gabri’s bistro, especially if we have just come from Myrna’s bookshop and have something new and interesting with us to read by the fire should we find ourselves there alone.

Clara Morrow is at the heart of Three Pines.  We have watched Clara struggle to find her own voice as an artist (can we possible forget those Warrior Uteruses?) and celebrated with her as finally her portrait of the old poet, Ruth, the most cantankerous and yet loveable member of the village community, brings her the recognition that she deserves.  But with that recognition has come the heartache of knowing that her husband, Peter, an artist himself, is not only unable to cope with her newfound acclaim but has also tried to undermine it. Three books back Clara asked Peter to give her space for a year to see if she could come to terms with the impact of his jealousy: to see if their relationship could have any future; now that year is up.

The year is up and Peter has not returned.  Clara, caught between conflicting fears that either her husband has chosen not to come home or that he has somehow been prevented from doing so, turns to Gamache and asks for his help.  At first Gamache is unwilling, his recent experiences meaning that he is fighting his own demons, but Clara is a friend and in Three Pines that has a meaning all of its own.  With the help of Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir, now his son-in-law, Gamache, Clara and Myrna set out to try and replicate the journey that Peter took after he left the village, in the hope of finding some indication of what has happened to him.  In so doing they discover that Peter has not only been on a physical journey but also on an exploration of who he is an artist and what he might have the potential to become if he has the courage to free himself of the rigid approach he has previously taken.  Although there is eventually a crime that needs to be uncovered and a villain who needs to be punished, this is fundamentally Penny’s novel about the creative process and the bravery necessary to discover the link between the physical and the emotional impulses that drive it.  This is the book in which she explores what it is that allows the likes of Clara and Ruth to communicate the very essence of the lives they hold up before us and to humble us with the honesty of the vision they lay bare.  Each step in the four friends’ journey makes it ever clearer that Peter has begun to understand that the compulsion behind creativity cannot come from the mind; it has, as Ruth says of her poetry, to start as a lump in the throat.

“A poem begins as a lump in the throat?” Gamache asked Ruth.  The elderly woman held his eyes for a moment before dropping them to her drink.

Clara was quiet, thinking.  She finally nodded.

“For me too.  The first go-round is all emotion just shot onto the canvas.  Like a cannon.”

“Peter’s paintings look perfect right from the start,” said Olivier.  “They never have to be rescued.”

The mounting evidence suggests that Peter might be beginning to have difficulty swallowing.

But, if that is the case, will he want to come back to Three Pines?  Is his non-appearance because his changing vision of the world and of his relationship to it means that he no longer wants to be part of the community where he has spent most of his adult life: that he no longer wants to commit to his relationship with Clara?  Only by facing him herself and trying to understand the journey he has taken will Clara know.

Penny’s real strengths as a novelist lie in her ability to create characters and settings that her readers will relate to and want to know more about.  If you have read her earlier books you will devour this latest chapter in your friends’ lives from beginning to end with no more than an occasional break for one of Gabri’s mouthwatering pastries.  If you are new to her work you may, however, find yourselves asking questions about the plotting of the crime element of the story and about its place in the narrative as a whole.  At times it gets in the way of what this book is really about.  I do find myself wondering where Penny is going as a novelist and whether, given that Gamache is no longer a member of the Sûreté, there may perhaps be stories to tell about Three Pines that don’t require a death to drive them.  Perhaps, like Peter Morrow, she needs to take time to pause and rethink the direction of her journey.  She is far far too good a writer to be tied to a genre that maybe has served its purpose as far as her creative life is concerned.

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Ann blogs at Café Society

Louise Penny,  The Long Way Home (Sphere: London, 2014). 9780751552645, 373pp., hardback.

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