I once threatened the possibility that “What the Faith” would someday do a book review. Well, that day is come – I read a book that I loved, and I think you all should read it because you’d love it, and goddammit I just gave away the whole review, didn’t I? Is it too late to ask all of you to maintain a sense of wonder and curiosity about how I feel about this book? Could you, maybe, pretend I didn’t just gush all over it?
Shit. I suck at this.
Anyway, the book I’m going to review is Lauren Martinez Catlin’s The Other Side of Silence.
In the interest of full disclosure, I know Lauren in real life, in a somewhat passing, “Hey, she’s pretty cool” sort of way. She attends the church that I’ll be attending after my move to Minneapolis, and I met her at the Midwest Blue Ocean Conference I attended last January. She gave a talk at a breakout session, I participated, a good time was had. I don’t think I spoke to her again until maybe this past July, when we found each other hanging out at a trendy local bar after a night session of a different conference. I recognized her, and I asked if she remembered me.
“Sure I do,” she said, “and why is it that you always mention Pete in your blog, but you’ve never mentioned me?”
Touché, Lauren Martinez Catlin. Touché, indeed.
But all that being disclosed, now, let me affirm that I’m not writing this review (this clearly about-to-be glowing review, thanks again, me) because I know Lauren a little bit, or because her baby is adorable, or because her husband is awesome and looks like Kevin Smith, or because I never mentioned Lauren on “What the Faith” even though I could have. All of these things are true, sure. However, I’m reviewing the book because it’s a book worth reviewing, regardless of whether or not you have ever held Lauren’s baby.
So. Let’s move on to the book, shall we?
The Other Side of Silence is one of those books where the main character doesn’t get revealed outright. While there are many different characters, each written from a first-person perspective and each getting their own chapter, the real focal character – the one person without whom this book would fall apart – is God. Or more accurately, it’s the Holy Spirit. This isn’t a surprise, given that those who know Lauren know that she is an active Christian.
What is surprising is that at no time does this book feel like it would fall under the umbrella of “Christian fiction”. Surprising as this is, I found it delightful. Readers of this blog know that Brandi and I have a fondness for certain, shall we say, “spicy” words that have made their way into the English language. To me, a healthy f-bomb is like a bite of jalapeño in my nachos – sure, some people might not like jalapeños, but I couldn’t imagine eating nachos without ‘em. In my experience, most fiction books written for a Christian market tend to keep the language – and the ideas – squeaky clean. As soon as I started reading the first chapter of the book, and was introduced to Miguel, an alcoholic Brazilian-American with a mouth like a marinheiro and a soul-crushing case of self loathing, I realized that this book was not a milquetoast pat-on-the-back story written for people who already considered themselves “saved”. Instead, The Other Side of Silence takes place in the fucking real world, where messes happen, and mistakes are made, and sometimes people – yes, even Christian people – are just simply assholes.
Even though every chapter focuses on one first-person narrative, the book doesn’t read like a collection of short stories. All of these people are connected, in ways obvious or subtle, by the works of the book’s real main character, the Holy Spirit. When Miguel undergoes a powerful spiritual experience, his spontaneous decision to say something kind to a complete stranger gives that person – the focus of the next chapter – the encouragement he needed at a low point in his life. In this way, the Holy Spirit of Lauren Martinez Catlin’s book reminds me the mysterious briefcase that drives the events of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Much like Tarantino’s attaché case, the one with the mysterious golden glow inside of it, Lauren’s God works his way through the story lightly, indirectly, by influencing the reactions of those who experience his touch at their time of direst need. In fact, the way that the disparate stories touch each other, how the culmination of one acts as the catalyst for the next, also adds to the Pulp Fiction vibe of the book. After you’ve caught the rhythm, you’ll read each chapter with a sense of anticipation – who is Isaac, the young Christian-on-campus at the big secular school who is confronting questions about his own sexual identity, going to influence, and how? What part does Ellie, the spritely daughter of chapter one’s Miguel, have to play in this story?
In a way, this novel is the unnatural love-child of Pulp Fiction and Pay it Forward – it has the gritty, low-down coolness of the former, mixed with the hopefulness of the latter. What keeps the story from devolving into a super-saccharine, Lifetime movie Kleenex fest is the realism with which the characters, their struggles, and the world around them are all portrayed. There is some high drama in this book, but it’s the high drama of life – stained, smelly, inglorious conflict that happens in a world that occasionally resembles a warzone, where bad things happen to good people and a “moral of the day” is often not provided. In portraying the bad as bad, Lauren shows us that even though life is not always fair, God has the tools he needs to make all things work together for our good. Many times, we are those tools.
In closing, I can’t think of a single person I know who wouldn’t benefit from reading The Other Side of Silence. Long-time Christians may take offence at some of its language, and some chapters (Isaac’s in particular) offer challenges to Christian culture that are both healthy and frightening to people who don’t make a habit of questioning where their church’s stances on issues come from. Some Christians may be offended at the way the Holy Spirit doesn’t work inside a Christian box, and some people find faith – GASP! – without the Sinner’s Prayer, or an altar call, or even hearing Jesus Christ mentioned by name. But I think those are reasons that people who are longtime Christians should read this book. Atheists, agnostics, and skeptics won’t read anything in this story that offends their belief system – after all, when the Holy Spirit shows up in the hearts and minds of these characters, it could just as easily be explained away by pop psychology, for those who must explain things in terms of pop psychology. Secular humanists will be moved by the frequent themes of social justice found in the novel. But really, anyone who appreciates good writing, believably human characters, and a story with just enough hope to be uplifting (but not so much as to slide it into hokeyness) will enjoy this very rewarding read.
So there you go, Lauren Martinez Catlin. You’ve been mentioned on “What the Faith”, in front of literally scores of readers! Now write something else, will you? And all you other folks, if you haven’t checked out The Other Side of Silence, and you are scared of embedded hyperlinks, I’ll include the Amazon link below.