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  • Writer's pictureThe Fiction Fox

Review: I Cheerfully Refuse - Leif Enger

Updated: Apr 21

Genre: Literary fiction, dystopian

Published: Grove Press, April 2nd 2024

My Rating: 4/5 stars

“If you’re heading out to sea to find the spirit of your beloved, then go while something rare and infinitely lucky is hanging in the sky.”

A grief-stricken man sets sail on Lake Superior against the background of a dystopian future-America wrecked by climate change, political- and economical division and more. Although the cover-blurb makes allusions to an “Orphean narrator”, what follows is more of a personal Odyssey on a micro-scale, but with the lyrical impact worthy of an epic comparison.

We follow Rainy, a gentle giant of a man, on his journey across the waters of his metaphorical grief over the loss of his wife Lark, as well as the literal waters of Lake Superior. What starts as an introspective and almost meditative journey, slowly offers a broadening scope of the world around, and with that a better understanding of how the events of Rainy- and Lark’s past brought him here.

What I loved:

With Enger's name, and the allusions towards Greek mythology attached to it, it won’t come as a surprise that this is an incredibly ambitious novel from a structural and literary point of view. I was blown away by its achievements in that regard. It strongly reminded me of Station Eleven (one of my all-time favourite novels!) in tone, themes and personal impact on me as a reader. I personally especially loved the first half, where the scope is tight and inward focused on Rainy, the solitary sailing, and the many weathers of Lake Superior mirroring the different faces of his grief.

In the second half, Rainy spends less time alone, meeting up with different passengers and passers-by, which give us a glimpse into the dystopian world at large. This slow spiraling out felt incredibly natural and well-paced. Without spelling it out in detail, we learn everything we need to understand the America that Rainy lives in. Pandemics, political crisis and a wealth-disparity so large that the 16 richest families are known as “The Astronauts”, for being so far removed from the rest of the population. Enger needs few words to paint a bleak and vivid picture.

Yet still, just like Station Eleven, Engers novel is a testament to the power of modern dystopian literature. Unlike the bleak and utterly “hopeless” classics, there is a defiant optimism and hopefulness in these modern stories. A faith in humanity’s potential for empathy and connection, if not on a societal scale, then on a smaller one. Through these connections, the characters on Engers pages (again, mirroring Emily St. John Mandel’s masterpiece) find their way back from survival to living.

What I didn’t love:

My biggest disappointment was a matter of expectation vs reality. The blurb refers to “lunatic storms, sentient waters and rising corpses from the warming depths”, hinting heavily at a magical realism element to the story. Especially in combination with the references to Greek myths, these elements wouldn’t have felt out of place here. Unfortunately, these are all strictly metaphorical, and no actual magical realism is present in the text. Although I like the imagery it conjured up in my head, I couldn’t help but feel a little mislead by the blurb.

My second point of contention relates to a single character; Sol. Whether it was the way her character was written; a fairly blank slate for Rainy to bounce off. Perhaps even the performance of the audiobook-narrator on doing an unconvincing “kids-voice”… Regardless, I never really got a feeling for their father-daughter-like dynamic. . It was clear that the author was going for something profound (think Joel and Ellie from The Last of Us), but it just fell short in that comparison.

Regardless of that small piece of critique, it was one of the best-written literary dystopians I’ve read in a while. It doesn't hurt either that the cover is just as much a piece of art as what's inside. Highly recommended for fans of Station Eleven, The Road and The Last of Us.

Many thanks to Grove Press and RB Media for providing me with an (audio)ARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

You can find this book here on Goodreads.


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