In his novel Beyond the Horizon, Ryan Ireland intertwines magical realism with a haunting mythological allegory of frontier America. Ireland’s debut, a twist on the traditional western, is a journey through the origins of modern America bursting with literary risks and graphic visceral scenes. Although a striking first attempt, it is at times difficult to engage with Ireland’s work due to his unconventional storytelling style and choppy organization.
This third-person novel follows three story arcs: the Indian, the Stranger, and the Man. The short bursts of different perspectives seem to interrupt one another. It is hard to continually switch storylines and the threads quickly become jumbled and confusing. The ambiguous labels for the characters are a strong reminder of the novel’s mythological roots, however, without clear identities, the characters become muddled and the reader struggles to empathize with them.
Of all the characters, the Man arouses the most empathy. His love for the pregnant Spanish-speaking woman shows his naive innocence and caring spirit. The two do not even speak the same language, but he still loves her. Some of the novel’s most powerful and horrific scenes are those between the man as a boy and his father. The boy is forced to watch his father rape and kill a native woman. The two take off on a canoe with the woman’s corpse, eating her meat like jerky because they have no other food. Having been raised on a boat, the Man had never seen an Indian before. His perspective makes the familiar frontier America setting seem like an alien land. When the boy and his father arrive in a port town, his father says, “Least they’s white men, people like us.” The boy says there is nobody like us (92). The nameless Man does not feel any affinities toward other white men. Instead, he lacks a clear identity because his history is so unlike any other human’s experiences.
As an outsider, the Man is an ideal target for the Stranger’s strategic plot to rewrite the myths of frontier America. The Man unknowingly serves as the Stranger’s pawn as a puzzling game unfolds. Even though the Stranger kills and destroys an entire Indian village, leaving only one surviving Indian boy, he still marvels at the beauty of the world in a humanistic way. The Indian’s story parallels the Man’s story. Like the Man, he grows up as a loner. His only motivation in life is to avenge his fallen village by killing the Stranger. The Stranger himself is somewhat of an enigma; he appears to know all that ever was and all that ever will be. He is like God and the Devil in one.
The ease of reading of the novel is hindered by Ireland’s decision to include several foreign languages without English translations. However, this choice helped emphasize one of the novel’s main themes: the importance of language and communication. The Stranger has the supernatural ability to speak and understand all languages, which allows him to manipulate others like pawns. Language is power; it grants the ability to unify or set people against each other. Language is also an essential part of what makes us all human. Ireland writes, “In time all languages sound the same – in a million years the hooting and baying of a caveman sounds the same as the romance of a European tongue” (212).
Ireland definitely took chances with his debut novel, some of which were effective and others that were not. I would recommend this novel if you enjoy a writer who is not afraid to test the boundaries of genre and form. Although this book is not perfect, it leaves the reader ruminating over important themes. At the end of the novel, Ireland writes, “Our destiny always lay just beyond the horizon. And some who stood looking out over all creation saw what the future beheld and turned to go back. But the earth is a cruel instrument and it continued on, the ground turning beneath their feet, the horizon ever changing, the future never here” (277). In this stunningly written prose, Ireland leaves the reader questioning if we can ever reach beyond the horizon to a new frontier.
Beyond the Horizon
By Ryan Ireland
279 pages. Oneworld Publications, 2015, $14.95