2 out of 4 stars
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Old Stone Face by Eve Gwartney is an enchanting story set in the 1800s that follows the lives of two indentured Danish sisters, Maren and Britta. Living without their parents in a harsh and grief-stricken world, the girls’ souls grow older than their young, sunburnt faces. With no dolls to play with and nobody to ask questions to, the sisters seek refuge in “Old Stone Face,” a rock on the estate that vaguely resembles a noseless visage. Old Stone Face becomes the girls’ secret confidante, as well as a stand-in for the missing people in their lives. The girls go on to grow while they discover secrets, forge unexpected relationships, and experience unimaginable horrors that seem impossible to heal from. This story is one that shows the reader how the treasures of compassion, hope, and forgiveness can come after grief and suffering, and how redemption can come after evil. It’s a profoundly comforting message.
One thing I greatly admired about the story was how committed it was to providing humane and multifaceted perspectives on different characters, situations, and struggles. Whether the character was a protagonist or antagonist, his or her position was presented in a compassionate way. There was an underlying insinuation that each character was innately good, if only a bit misguided or misinformed. Just like in real life, the situations the characters found themselves in were tricky and never clear-cut. The characters had to make many difficult decisions with limited information and were frequently uncertain about the future. This made it very easy to empathise with the character’s thoughts, hopes, and fears. It also helped the reader to clearly see how the characters were doing their best in whatever situation they were in, even if it was difficult to agree with the actions they took.
The story was very symbolic, and there were a lot of insights and profound pearls of wisdom that the book had to offer. However, the symbols and metaphors were not embedded subtly in the text and were instead constantly pointed out to the reader. Often, they were explained in a literal, concrete manner. This made it so that the reader never had a chance to discover them on his or her own. Sometimes a metaphor was dragged on too long and was hammered in so hard that it lost its gravity. One example of this is a situation in the story where a character changed his or her name to reflect his or her new and improved personality. The etymology of both names was explained in great detail, and the conflict between the respective “personalities” of both names was reinforced so many times that it lost its lustre over time despite being a good metaphor.
Old Stone Face was particularly wholesome, and that was both its strength as well as its weakness. It had very optimistic—almost naïve—ideas about goodness and redemption, but this quality was what made it so irresistible and endearing. This is the kind of message that balms the heart and nourishes the spirit. Recently, there’s been a trend of absurdist or even cynical themes in the stories that deal with making sense out of the human condition. The pure and sturdy sense of hope this book carried within it was a breath of fresh air.
This story also had that otherworldly “historical fiction” feeling—the feeling of being excited but ultimately safe in a strange and beautiful new place. Eve Gwartney’s writing crafted a rich and detailed Danish backdrop. The descriptions of food and clothes were especially vivid. The story took me squarely to 1800s Denmark, and the visuals she created were lucid and atmospheric. That is how I know, in retrospect, that the book was written after being thoroughly and meticulously researched. Dieter Rams once said, “good design is invisible.” I think I would say the same about good research in a historical fiction novel.
Unfortunately, the silky quality of this rich plot eventually snagged on the bumpy timeline. The flow of the story was inconsistent and large chunks of time passed by erratically. After a while, it was hard to keep up with how old the protagonists were. This also put some distance between the reader and the characters, making it difficult to feel attached to them. I also found more than 10 small grammatical errors, and although they did not significantly impact my reading experience, there were too many of them for me to be able to consider the book professionally edited. For all these reasons, I rate Old Stone Face 2 out of 4 stars. Had I been able to evaluate the book out of five stars, I would have given it three stars, as there is more I enjoyed about this story than not. I would recommend this book to historical fiction enthusiasts, philosophers of life, and cynics who want a sip of hope before they go on their way.
Old Stone Face
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