In this deeply researched work, Boyden captures his characters’ disparate beliefs, remaining impartial even as they pass judgment on the customs they find simultaneously fascinating and repellent in the others. The prose conveys a raw beauty in its depictions of trade journeys, daily life within longhouses, and spirituality; the Huron Feast of the Dead, for example, is presented as a majestic symphony of reverence. The scenes of ritual torture are difficult to read, and the novel offers many intense impressions of cross-cultural conflicts and differences, yet it is most affecting when evoking its protagonists’ shared humanity and the life force—the orenda—burning brightly within each of them.
The Orenda will be published by Knopf on May 13th (hb, $26.95). It was first published by Hamish Hamilton last September in Canada, where it became a national bestseller. Last month, it was chosen as the winner of the 2014 Canada Reads literary battle.
I wrote this starred review for Booklist's March 1st issue. The Orenda also made it to Booklist's top 10 in historical fiction for 2014 (which also includes two other picks of mine: Emma Donoghue's Frog Music and Henning Mankell's A Treacherous Paradise).