I was first introduced to E.J. Runyon as a writer via her 2012 short story collection, Claiming One. I was a big fan, then, and I remain a big fan today, having just completed my first read of her new novel, 900 Miles.
One of the things that first impressed me about Runyon’s writing style is her ability to capture voice. It is impossible for me to enjoy a story that cannot manage to get its characters’ perspectives right. I found Runyon’s adroitness at this especially apparent in Claiming One because each story’s distinct narrator had a clear and unique voice. I think this is one of the most challenging things for writers to do and is much of the reason why short story writers, in particular, often succeed or fail as storytellers. When we read ten or twelve or however many stories in a single collection, often binging a few in a sitting, it becomes very clear which writers can create disparate narrative voices and which ones simply rely too heavily on their own. Runyon has the knack.
I was immediately drawn into the story 900 Miles tells because of the perspective of its narrator, Christina. It is remarkable to see such growth in an individual character, one whose presence remains the majority of the story itself from start to finish, develop in such a short period of time. I’ve read some trilogies that don’t quite manage this, and yet what Runyon does for Christina is not only believable, it is a privilege to witness. In the span of a couple-hundred pages, Christina’s life changes. The event that causes it is momentous, but the way she reacts to it, with caution and care, allows her to experience the kinds of living opportunities she had to that point forfeited due to poverty and self-consciousness. I’ll admit that I was worried about the striking nature of Christina’s change in fortune, and about how early it comes in the narrative, but that’s just a lesson: trust the author, especially one as precise as Runyon!
Another element I found interesting about this short but thoughtful novel is its design. The chapters are separated into mini-portions, somewhat like vignettes. This took me back to my first experience reading Justin Torres’s We the Animals. Part of why I loved that short book so much is because it unfolded in moments, in flares of color and passion. Christina’s story, too, in 900 Miles, is both slow and fast. Everything changes in an instant, and yet Christina doesn’t allow that instant to change or define her. Instead, she embarks upon an arduous journey of self-discovery. As she gets in touch with her feelings, her desires, her limitations, she relays those to the readers in bursts of awareness. These vignettes propel the story forward but they also help us experience Christina’s moments of movement, to literally notice the changes as they happen, one at a time and then, holistically.
There is as much about 900 Miles that is sad as there is about it that is happy. And yet, that’s life, isn’t it? Our journey, be it 9 miles or 900, often unfolds behind us. We recognize it only in memory, in retrospect. The beauty of a book like this is that it reminds the reader how special it can be to slow down just a little bit and breathe our moments as they come.
Note: I received an electronic copy of this title from the publisher, Inspired-Quill; however, I still can’t manage to get through a damn ebook. So, I bought a print copy myself. No regrets.