By Shannon Kirk
Reputation Books (September 6, 2016)
Reviewed by Dawn Reno Langley
Vivienne Marshall’s chance to shop for the heaven she will call her own begins the day she is struck down, a victim of texting-while-walking. The 35-year-old relives her life and plans her afterlife during the course of this extraordinary (excuse the pun) novel by award-winning author Shannon Kirk.
The novel imagines a process that dying people embark upon, the last choice they actually make during their lifetime: the choice of what life after life will become. Vivienne’s images of heaven are emotionally-charged ones, each centering on a love, past and present, familial and passionate. Her choices, fears, and struggles between life (on life-sustaining devices, in and out of a medically-induced coma) and a heavenly death are delivered to the reader in alternating viewpoints. Vivienne’s “dream state,” where she travels from one heavenly world to another, as well as the description of each world, are reminiscent of the fantastic scenery in What Dreams May Come.
Filled with fantasy elements, the worlds float or glisten, colored with sounds and scents and textures that are infused with pleasure, yet she also feels conflicted by that feeling. For her to decide on her own afterlife means she must also give up on the life she knows in the present, but it appears that she’s been forgotten by her family and friends, and the passage of time from her accident until the moments when she comes back to consciousness are marked with dead flowers next to her bed and populated by a nurse who struggles with remaining dispassionate while Vivienne takes her journeys. With the knowledge that she must make that ultimate choice, Vivienne shepherds the reader through her incredibly beautiful journey, a journey made even more delicately woven because it is drawn with the power of Kirk’s talented pen.
There are people in Vivienne’s heavenly travels. She sees the heaven that her soul mate Noah introduces to her, as well as the ones that her best friend, a priest and her son inhabit. Vivienne’s love for her son, Ivan, is a beautiful, unspoiled one, while the feelings she shares with Noah verge on idolatry. Each relationship shows another side of Vivienne that ultimately brings us to an understanding of her choices.
Kirk’s delicate weaving of the web that intricately binds mother and child is one of the finest relationships in the story—and in life itself. The metaphor she builds by including a well-known child’s story with a character named Ivan builds a dimension into the story that is both unexpected and refreshing.
Such a subject matter can easily become maudlin or silly, depending upon the writer’s skill. Yet Kirk brings a sense of magical realism to the writing that elevates the story from commercial to literary. One could read the tale strictly for the beauty of its language, but the characters who fulfill roles in Vivienne’s life, as well as within the world itself, are a pleasure to learn. In each of our own life stories, we have a great love, a family member sewn into our soul, and a person who is solid and reliable. By taking Vivienne’s journey with her, the reader comes to a greater understanding of the roles those people play in all our lives.
This is a story that becomes something of a meditation. As one reads it, one is lulled through the process Vivienne experiences, yet reminded brilliantly of the very tenuous connection there is between the beginning and ending of life.
I am absolutely amazed that Kirk wrote this gem of a novel, as well as the heart-pounding thriller Method 15/33. This is one gifted writer, and The Extraordinary Journey Of Vivienne Marshall is one gorgeous, uplifting, and powerful book! If you loved A Winter’s Tale by Mark Helperin or The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, you’ll love Vivienne’s story.
DAWN RENO LANGLEY, Ph.D., is an award-winning author of nonfiction books on art and antiques, novels, children’s books, short stories, poetry, theater reviews, and academic essays. Hire her for writing projects, read her blogs and Twitter feed, check out her Pinterest page, and book her to speak for your group.