Type Eighteen Books

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By Erin Jamieson

IR Rating:
A beautiful and engrossing read, Erin Jamieson's SKY OF ASHES, LAND OF DREAMS paints a complex and captivating portrait of people and their ways of life in an isolated, rarely-examined swath of the planet.
IR Approved
The small details of life in 20th-century Mongolia unfold in a riveting tale with life-and-death stakes.

It should surprise no one that Erin Jamieson, author of SKY OF ASHES, LAND OF DREAMS, is also a published poet. Her chronicle of people living and working in bleak Mongolian lands packs two world wars, the 20th century’s political upheavals of both China and Russia, and piercing multi-generational emotions into a novel clocking in at only slightly over 200 pages. Her tools are plain, potent words that evoke complex relationships and vivid landscapes.

This simmering story about minuscule details—“she’d scale the fences her father had built, pluck wild berries from bone dry shrubbery, chase jerboa with their beady rodent eyes”—unfolds into a riveting tale with life-and-death stakes for its characters: “As she stumbles in the darkness, the wind howls in her ears and blocks out all thought. The white is a blanket, coating her eyes and entering her nostrils, freezing her shallow breaths.” The wars and revolutions of the book’s time frame hover in the distance, despite their magnitude, threatening but secondary to the massive work of clawing through another day alive. Politics is just one more of the unappeasable forces, natural and otherwise: “He is bone tired after a day in misty, cold fields, forever behind the quotas he’s given.”

SKY OF ASHES, LAND OF DREAMS begins in 1917 and ends in 1960. At its center are Bolormaa and Ganbaatar, who work alongside their respective families in the harsh environment of the Gobi desert. The “plot” follows childhood activities, marriage ceremonies, meal preparations, nursing the dying, unpacking homes—gers—to be reassembled where the grazing is better. Hung on that armature are lovely descriptions of the objects, rituals, and domestic habits of Mongolian lives. Small but powerful mysteries drive the story forward, each unraveling as fresh ones arise. The narrative’s foundation is the land itself, brutal, withholding, and more than merely home—a way of living fully, deep into the marrow. Despite this land’s unremitting punishments, the novel’s characters savor its gifts: the enormity of its sky, its isolation, its raw beauty.

The novel is diminished somewhat by careless editing (regarding both punctuation and continuity), and the final 20 percent of the book’s ride feels a little bumpy. The storyline moves steadily and naturally throughout the book, sometimes with large gaps in time, in a way that is largely satisfying. Near the end, however, the movement doesn’t feel as organic or inevitable. The final date, 1960, seems stuck on—primarily to tie up a few loose ends—as the novel’s story feels like it ended before that final jump in time. But these are quibbles about an otherwise fascinating read.

A beautiful and engrossing read, Erin Jamieson’s SKY OF ASHES, LAND OF DREAMS paints a complex and captivating portrait of people and their ways of life in an isolated, rarely-examined swath of the planet.

~Anne Welsbacher for IndieReader

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