Sheila Peters’s novel, The Taste of Ashes, does not feel like a first novel. It’s carefully crafted, multi-layered family narrative is complex and lyrical in a way that reveals Peters’s history as a poet and short-story writer. The three primary narratives, that follow Isabel, Álvaro and Janna’s individual stories, are interwoven in such a way that even a few convenient coincidences – which could have seemed contrived and artificial – feel genuinely spontaneous and natural.
Each of the three main characters, Isabel, Álvaro and Janna, is flawed and complicated, but ultimately sympathetic. Isabel, the heart of the novel, is a study in duality. Her sensuous – in the most literal sense of the word – nature makes her an excellent mother when she is present, but also causes her to frequently fall off the rails and into the arms of random men. Because we meet her after she’s sobered up and calmed down, her rift with Janna seems unfair and undeserved, but as we learn what ultimately precipitated their separation, Isabel becomes a more complete, if not more likeable character.
Álvero’s history is the most complex and his broken psyche and body, the result of brutal torture at the hands of Guatemalan authorities, are what bring The Taste of Ashes out of the realm of the ordinary. Peters’s masterful description of the aftermath of torture, the anger and shame and fear that Álvero still feels creates a character that readers will find both frustrating and sympathetic. His interactions with the other priests in his brotherhood, his questions about faith and God’s role in his life and the stages of his healing are fascinating and have an air of authenticity.
The third story, Janna’s thread in this narrative tapestry, is just as complex as Isabel and Álero’s and her character is just as flawed. Peters wonderfully captures the voice of a very young woman with Janna’s aggravatingly know-it-all stubbornness. Readers will be exasperated by her self-reliance, even when what she really needs is help and care, but that’s what gives her such verisimilitude. We know women, particularly young women, who take the hardest path simply because help, especially from their mothers, makes them feel as if they failed. Janna is not particularly likable but she is ultimately sympathetic and it’s refreshing that Peters does not have her change dramatically when the three stories are brought together.
Place plays a very important role in The Taste of Ashes and where the characters are from is as important as the characters themselves. Peters intertwines small town northern British Columbia – which every northern reader will recognize as Smithers, BC– with the Vancouver of UBC students, the Vancouver of oblate priests, and exotic and turbulent Guatemala into a detailed and complex web. Where the characters are from shapes them in subtle and significant ways and their individual histories in each place, especially the small northern town creates a narrative depth and beauty that few debut novels can achieve.
The Taste of Ashes, isn’t just the complicated history of one small town family, it’s a lyrical, richly detailed saga that draws the reader into the complexity of family relationships and ultimately reveals that redemption and healing are always possible. The Taste of Ashes is a novel to savor.