'Juliet in August" is a wonderful novel that shines like the bright sun on the dusty western prairie where this story is set. Published first in Canada (under the title "Cool Water"), where it won the prestigious Governor General's Award in 2010, it's the first novel by Dianne Warren, who has previously published three collections of short stories.
Juliet is not a woman, but a town of 1,011 people on the edge of Saskatchewan's massive sand dunes, a town where on the surface it would appear that very little happens. As Lee Torgeson, one of the novel's dozen or so main characters, puts it, "Everybody knows everything in Juliet." But as it turns out, Torgeson is wrong. A great deal is going on here and no one really knows anything about what is really happening to anyone; they just think they do. Which is, of course, how it is in real life.
The novel, which is structured a bit like linked stories, begins adroitly with a hundred-mile horse race between two cowboys -- one young and one much older -- that took place, we soon realize, long in the past when horses and wagons were the norm. And through the narrative path of the remainder of the novel, which unfolds over a single day, we wander around the same course that the two cowboys traveled. And Lee Torgeson, much to his own surprise, does it by horseback on a stray that wandered onto his farm in the darkness of the early morning ("It's that kind of night, rife with the presence of ghosts," as Warren describes it).
In elegant language, Warren has created a wide range of rich characters out of ordinary individuals. There's the stiff, respectable banker, his wife, his daughter -- who became pregnant by her fiancé, a man who appears in and out of the book, mostly very intoxicated; there's the failed rancher, now a highway road worker, and his sweet wife, Vicki, who is understandably harried by their six children and their relative poverty; there's a middle-aged couple, Hank and Lynn, who are trying to keep their relationship healthy, Hank getting in trouble with his wife without even knowing it; and there's Willard, who owns a drive-in theater and whose brother's widow, Marian, still lives with him. These people and more, at one point, all interact, revealing their lives, their emotions, their strengths and their frailties.
"Juliet in August" is one of those glistening gems: a quiet, beautifully told, richly envisioned novel with characters as real as you and me, going about their daily lives as well as they possibly can.
Jim Carmin is a member of the National Book Critics Circle who lives in Portland, Ore.