Review: Life at the Precipice - R. F. Vincent
Genre: Literary Fiction, Speculative Fiction
Published: FriesenPress (independently published), July 2023
My Rating: 4.5 stars R.F. Vincent’s debut novel is wonderful. Literally… It combines elements of literary-, speculative fiction, humor and beautiful character-work, and casts it in the mold of a fictional scientific travel log to create something I’ve never read before, but couldn’t stop thinking about. It’s a wholly unique combination that sounds like it shouldn’t work, but Vincent pulls it off. Life at the Precipice is at times funny and absurdist, at others moving and deeply human, and in its entirety filled with a sense of memorable wonder. Synopsis: In 1959 an earthquake in central Vancouver Island devastated the lakeside community of Pyrite Ridge and triggered a landslide that cut the town off from the rest of the world. Now perched on the precipice of a yawning sinkhole and separated from the world by a wall of rubble, the town became a place of myth and lore. We follow Travis Sivart, a geophycisist and ex-military pilot battling PTSD, as he embarks on a weeklong research-trip to investigate the scientific truth behind these strange myths. In particular, the rumoured appearance of the towns very own Lake Monster nicknamed Seggie. Along the way, he meets a host of eccentric characters, each with their own fascinating story of how they came to The Segway. Through his research-journal and travel-log, we gain a unique insight into the town, its people and Travis’ own history. What I loved: The novel's format was what originally drew me to it, and it didn’t disappoint in its execution. Life at the Precipice reads almost like a non-fiction regional guide, mixed with a scientific journal. It includes maps, diagrams, drawings and footnotes that bring the story and its setting to life, beyond what a typical novel-format would allow. Pyrite Ridge jumps off the page, and feels like a place you might actually visit. I would personally love to, as it brims with equal parts mystery, quirk and charm. Each character reads like a person with their own history and life story, which adds a level of immersion and depth to the place. Some of the aspects of the town seem almost whimsical: impossibly impractical architecture, characters working unlikely careers and the hinted presence of creatures like Bigfoot and Seggie hidden in the surrounding wilderness… At other times, parallels drawn to Travis’ own life make the events in town almost more than real. The key-word in this all is balance. R.F. Vincent manages to balance his various chosen elements to near-perfection. Fact vs myth, community vs isolation, layered allegory vs whimsical entertainment, light-hearted humor vs the true emotional gut-punch that Travis’ own confrontation with his past brings… What I didn’t love: My single point of critique comes down to a personal dislike. It’s mentioned in the synopsis that Travis suffers from PTSD, but the nature of his trauma is only “revealed” as a sort of twist at the end. That trope often relies on forced amnesia from the protagonist, and can very easily slip into the territory of using the traumatic event as a “thrilling revelation”, which is risky. In this case, it was done in good faith and taste, so it didn’t bother me, but I can’t say I wasn’t nervous for a second. Overall, I highly recommend Life at the Precipice It feels like too much of its own thing to give you a single decent comp-title. It has the character-work and emotional development you’d find in any quality small-town-literary fiction-novel of your choice (I’m thinking Snow Falling on Cedars, but that’s probably just the similar cover…). Then add to that the format of “fiction-masquerading-non-fiction/travel-account” of City of Saints and Madmen and the humor and absurdist charm of the setting of Welcome to Night Vale, and I think you might be close. Many thanks to the author, FriesenPress and Netgalley for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
You can find this book here on Goodreads.