Named a "Best Young American Novelist" by GRANTA, Kate Wheeler received numerous awards and the highest critical acclaim for her story collection, NOT WHERE I STARTED FROM. Francine Prose wrote, "This is a book you mention to your friends . . . Wheeler is a writer to follow, wherever she chooses to travel." In her much anticipated first novel, Wheeler takes readers to opposite ends of the earth in a story of passions that weaves together past and present. WHEN MOUNTAINS WALKED tells of two parallel love affairs, years apart, in places as remote as the deepest canyon in the world, as vast as the Indian desert. In the 1940s, Althea Baines follows her seismologist husband to the heart of the Indian subcontinent to trace the origins of earthquakes. Here, awakening to a form of spirituality she had never imagined, she eventually finds solace with a Hindu priest. Years later, her granddaughter Maggie follows her own idealistic husband to a canyon in central Peru to set up a health clinic. Alive to the culture and the place, Maggie falls recklessly in love with a revolutionary leader and follows him on an apocalyptic trip into the rain forest. The lives of the older and younger woman echo and illuminate each other as each gets swept up in her own time by powerful forces. This is a novel about love and compromise, about the difficulties of establishing an identity in the midst of extravagant desires. Like Wheeler's short stories, WHEN MOUNTAINS WALKED features American women seeking love and enlightenment in distant parts of the world. As the NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW said of her, "Wheeler has a capacity for compressing the insights of cross-cultural dislocation into deliciously memorable epiphanies." Romantic and wise, evocative and compassionate, WHEN MOUNTAINS WALKED reaffirms Kate Wheeler's reputation as one of our most captivating writers.
When Mountains Walked belongs to a tradition as venerable as American literature itself: the novel of Yankees seeking enlightenment abroad. Where Henry James opposed American innocence and European experience, more recent writers often substitute American guilt and Third World vitality. Debut novelist Kate Wheeler has a more nuanced view: her Peru is equal parts dread and desire, a place where her American heroine feels the dizzying pull of belonging even as she knows she cannot.
Born in Mexico, raised in Colombia, Maggie Goodwin has always felt like a foreigner in her own country. Her grandmother Althea was another expatriate, following her seismologist husband to unstable places around the globe. Late in life, Althea fed her favorite granddaughter on tales as notable for what they left out as for the fanciful escapades they left in. For the grown-up Maggie, leaving Harvard for Peru is a way to explore her grandmother's unsettling stories--and in the process, exorcise her own demons:
Maggie's soul had been haunted by deficits, shadows, and unknown things far more than by the facts that everyone knew and accepted. Secrets and absences could control a person's life. They'd pulled her here, to Piedras. She'd believed that when the secrets got explained, the hole in her soul would be filled in. Together Maggie and her new husband Carson settle in a village at the bottom of the deepest canyon in the world, where they intend to run the long-shuttered local health clinic. "According to an intricate and perhaps unreliable story of her grandmother's," Piedras is the place where Maggie's uncle was conceived. Unfortunately, it's also a place where village women think the new gringos want to eat the fat from their children--and where revolutionary violence still simmers.
In the chapters that follow, Wheeler alternates scenes from Althea's marriage with Maggie's experiences in Piedras. The parallels are striking: both women have husbands whose idealism verges on sternness, and both fall fiercely, unexpectedly in love with other men. Throughout, the writing is both precise and visceral, as in this description of homemade cane liquor: "The resulting brew combined the oiliness of kerosene, the smell of an electrical fire, and pubic funk." As Maggie is swept away by forces both personal and political, paradoxically, she finds her own long-dormant will. This is, after all, why we travel: by coming to someplace strange, we hope more than anything else to understand ourselves. Wheeler vividly captures the feeling--recognizable to anyone who's traveled--of coming to a place infinitely distant from one's own experience and feeling as if it were home. --Chloe Byrne