The Book of Job, one of the most troubling tales in the Bible, depicts a devout man whose faith is brutally tested through disease, poverty and the death of his loved ones. In Alison McGhee's moving new novel, Was it Beautiful?, a modern-day version of Job appears in the form of William T. Jones, a haunted man who lives in the Adirondack region of upstate New York. McGhee, author of the critically acclaimed novel Shadow Baby, portrays in spare and beautiful prose a setting and community that recall the cold, harsh landscapes of Richard Russo's fiction. At the novel's outset, William T.'s 27-year-old son has died (possibly from suicide); his wife has divorced him; his feisty, old, adored cat, Genghis, dies from a bear-mauling; and he loses his job. William T., previously more than content in his typical life, suddenly finds that he has no one other than a collection of misfit animals in a broken-down barn with whom to live out his days.
And though he goes through the motions of living his life feeding the animals, eating breakfast at his favorite local diner and visiting his daughter-in-law, Sophie William T.'s desperate loneliness permeates the narrative. When he goes to a restaurant where Sophie waits tables, "She refused to look at him even though he willed her to. Look. Look. Look at me, Sophie. She took out her order pad. Poised her pencil. Look at me, Sophie. Please." William T., a broken man who doesn't know how to express himself, suffers in silence, secretly begging those around him to see and understand his plight oftentimes seeking solace from people who are trying to find their own way through grief.
By necessity, Was it Beautiful? is a solemn-toned work with few breaks from its dark mood, but just as Job is rewarded at the end of his trials, William T. is ultimately redeemed, and the novel's conclusion provides readers with a feeling of release and the sense that while God may indeed "taketh away," He also, of course, "giveth." Jenn McKee is a writer in Berkley, Michigan. One of her short stories appears in Best New American Voices 2003.