Shiner by Amy Jo Burns


The Short Review: Written with precision and lyricism, Shiner hums with memories of the past and a world unknown. This coming of age story set in Appalachian West Virginia will have you captivated from the first page, and longing to revisit the story once it’s over.




The Long Review: Shiner fits into that category of book that I love the most: a young girl coming of age in a distinct setting, written in lush prose that you’ll read aloud to guests every time they come over.


Wren, our protagonist and narrator, has never strayed too far from her family’s mountain cabin, always staying in their orbit and this world her religious father has created. Her father, Briar, is a snake-handling preacher, and it’s his faith-fueled actions that set the story spinning. After a woman, Ivy—the best friend to Wren’s mother, Ruby—falls into an open fire, Briar seems to work a miracle that prevents her from having any serious injury. But as his miracle slowly appears to come undone, so do the seams holding the secrets of this family together.


So much of this story is about the past and how our experiences—especially traumatic ones—become the framework for how we view our lives. Wren looks back on this period of her life at fifteen and we follow along as she draws a line between every action she takes and how it leads us to these defining moments. In a way, this exploration of time is reminiscent of Alice Munro; Burns showcases how cyclical these experiences can be from one generation to the next, how we can spend so much of our lives living in the past while also living in a past that isn’t even ours.

The book is set in Appalachian West Virginia, and Burns writes about it with so much love and care. I think it can be tricky to write about this setting, because people have a very specific idea of what it is—and also because the people who call it home are very protective of the way it’s portrayed. This book features moonshiners, snake-handlers, addiction, and many other things that, if not written with nuance and grace, could easily have become a punch-line. Burns addresses a lot of this as early as the prologue, writing:


“Beyond these hills my people are known for the kick in their liquor and the poverty in their hearts. Overdoses, opioids, unemployment. Folks prefer us this way—dumb-mouthed with yellow teeth and cigarettes, dumb-minded with carboys of whiskey and broken-backed Bibles. But that's not the real story. Here's what hides behind the beauty line along West Virginia's highways: a fear that God has forgotten us. We live in the wasteland that coal has built, where trains eat miles of track. Our men slip serpents through their fingers on Sunday mornings and pray for God to show Himself while our wives wash their husbands' underpants. Here's what hides behind my beauty line: My father wasn't just one of these men. He was the best.”

I’m not from this area (I actually come from the Bible belt), but I still know the type of people written about in this book. I was raised Pentecostal—speaking in tongues, and all that jazz—and this book showcases what it’s like being in this more flamboyant side of religion in a way that I haven’t really seen before. It felt so honest. And I also love literary fiction that explores faith in general—Gilead and A Place For Us comes to mind. Shiner adds to this conversation in the ways it examines this unexplored territory.



The same love that’s shown in the crafting of the characters and this world is also shown on a sentence level. Every line of this novel is set to music, the notes hidden in invisible ink. Burns writes beautiful passages that have an almost elliptical quality—even when you don’t know where the story is headed, you can hear the melody of her sentences in your head. I first noticed this when reading her memoir, Cinderland, and again when reading Shiner. I think part of this elliptical quality matches the ideas that Burns explores. Shiner opens with a prologue, titled ‘True Story’, and it begins:


"Making good moonshine isn’t that different from telling a good story, and no one tells a story like a woman. She knows that legends and liquor are best spun from the back of a pickup truck after nightfall, just as she knows to tell a story slowly, the way whiskey drips through a sieve. Moonshine earned its name from spending its life concealed in the dark, and no one understands that fate more than I do."

The way the first and last line of the paragraph follow a similar cadence gives this feeling of déjà vu, almost. As I mentioned earlier, this novel explores time in a lot of important ways, and there are many moments where it feels like the past and the present are caught in the same rhythm. By Burns executing this same feeling on a sentence level leads to an even richer experience for the reader.


Shiner is beautiful and exciting, and I have no doubt that I’ll be angry when people start quoting my favorite lines back to me, because I am just that possessive about the books that I love. If you love coming-of-age stories, books about faith, or just books that have stunning prose, this one is definitely for you. I know I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.


Shiner

Amy Jo Burns

274 pages. 2020.


Buy it here.