Book Review: Shiner – Amy Jo Burns

Shiner – Amy Jo Burns (Riverhead Books, 2020)

I received an Advance Readers Copy of this book. All opinions are my own. It is on sale now.

Wren Bird has lived her whole life on the same mountain, isolated from even the tiny mining town nearby. Her father is the local preacher, the snake handling, prophesying preacher known as White Eye. After he survived a lightning strike as a young man, he believed God’s hand to be on him. He’s purposely kept his wife Ruby and their daughter cut off from the rest of the world, their only real connection remaining through Ivy, Ruby’s childhood best friend. When Ivy is burned in a terrible accident, White Eye seems to step in and perform a miracle. Things soon go awry however and long held secrets come to light as Wren learns the truth of her parents’ history.

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, the story is interesting and unique. A look into an extremist Christian belief system (one that does exist in certain parts of the United States) based on a single verse in the Bible. White Eye (his real name is Briar Bird) handles snakes and is obsessed with being seen as holy, maintaining his small circle of authority in his church run out of an abandoned gas station. Wren’s whole world is tied up in her mother so when her mother is no longer able to protect her, what occurs next makes sense.

The style of Burns’ writing, however, almost made me give up numerous times. The best way I can describe it is as “overwritten”. Burns is trying really hard to offer new and unique metaphors and while that is laudable, the result is often painful. The comparisons she comes up with often make little to no sense and rather than drawing the reader in and making us see familiar things in a new light, it made me pause and think, “What does that mean?” It felt forced and brought me out of the book. And despite the descriptions, I struggled to visualize some of the settings.

As well, while the first section focuses on Wren, the book then jumps to different characters in subsequent chapters, including one that we’ve barely been introduced to, and this felt like it led to the story losing a lot of its momentum.

My other critique is perhaps more indicative of me as a reader than of the book. Religion and spirituality is at the heart of the conflict of this novel. Wren has been raised entirely immersed in a very specific offshoot of Christianity; she’s never been to school, she doesn’t have any real friends. Her mother, as a young woman, made the choice to marry White Eye, already on the way to being the extremist he was. We learn that Ruby and Ivy also grew up attending the same snake handling church. Yet there’s never any sense of what these characters believe for themselves. At one point, Wren makes the decision to be baptized, something that is ordinarily an important step in the Christian faith. We are told she sees it as a way of taking hold of her father’s religion for herself but there’s no indication given as to what she thinks of it from a spiritual perspective. It seemed to me that a lot of what happens to Wren would have her questioning her faith upbringing and yet we never see her do so. Nor do any of the other characters – almost all of whom live immersed in this pseudo-cult of snake handling – seem to think about God or belief at all. To me, this seemed like a missed opportunity.

In the end I kept reading because I was genuinely curious about the answers to the mystery of Ivy’s miracle and I wanted to know what happened to Wren and her parents. The setting and the storyline were unique and engaging enough that I continued past the hiccups though I don’t know if I would reach for a book by Burns again.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Shiner – Amy Jo Burns”

  1. Ah, overwritten is a good word—I can imagine what you mean by that! Too bad because I was very interested in this based on its premise. Regarding your critique on religion and spirituality, I was wondering if those brought up in a certain religion their whole lives would be less inclined to really grapple with it for themselves? I know a lot of people who grew up in a certain religion but never really questioned it or took it to heart. Did it seem like the author was setting up a questioning of belief but never did?

    1. I think I know what you mean, some people are less likely to question a spiritual belief when they’ve been immersed in it their whole lives. Wren is definitely aware that her family’s belief system is unusual. In my opinion, she moves too easily to complete denial of it. It felt unrealistic because she was so completely sheltered that to deny the faith she was raised in would really be a denial of so much of her life. I think that’s pretty unusual in a teenager, especially one who has no outside support system to move into.

    2. Ah, now I understand, and it does seem unusual for a teenager to swing to complete denial without having another belief system to take its place. That is too bad—I am still intrigued by books that take on religious themes.

    3. You might still find it interesting! It wasn’t a perfect read but I did enjoy that it looked at an unusual aspect of religion.

    1. It was really the set up that kept me reading because it is such an interesting idea. So Burns succeeded in that, her writing style just drove me crazy!

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