Novel explores magical realism in utopian afterlife

Vivenne Marshall, the protagonist, finds herself in heaven while in the ICU. Photo courtesy of Reputation Books.

Have you ever wondered if there is a heaven? Have you contemplated the meaning of life? Have you ever wondered if the butterfly effect is more than just an abstract theory? If so, “The Extraordinary Journey of Vivienne Marshall” by Shannon Kirk is a must-read novel for you.

“The Extraordinary Journey of Vivienne Marshall,” published on Sept. 6 and a finalist for the William Faulkner Wisdom Writing Competition: 2012 Novel-in-Progress, is simultaneously gut wrenching and heartwarming.

Vivienne Marshall, the novel’s protagonist, takes a fatal walk into a truck’s path while playing a word game on her cell phone. Ironically, the word played by her opponent is “ascend” and Vivienne does just that. She soon finds herself transported to the next life.

As she lies in the intensive care unit, Vivienne begins constructing her own eternal utopian rest by taking a trip through the heavens of a priest, a best friend, a homeless child and a lover who never was. Vivienne’s guardian angel, Noah, who may just be her soulmate, escorts her through selections of heavens and through the confusion Vivienne experiences as she stumbles between a doubt of life and the certainty of death.

Kirk clearly invested tender, loving care in developing this novel, which was over four years in the making. Kirk’s descriptions of Vivienne’s life are exquisitely written. Throughout the novel, the reader learns about Vivienne’s relationships with her best friend, her mother, her lovers and her son, and each relationship is a building block for the person Vivienne ultimately becomes.

Although the novel is a work of fiction, the reader can’t help but look at their own life and find similarities. In each of our own life stories, we have a great love, a family member forever etched into our soul and a person who is a solid and reliable presence.

Kirk paints Vivienne’s life before the accident as very causal and linked to uncontrollable circumstances, which in a way is the definition of all life. Kirk’s description of the interplay between the fluctuating affairs of life and inevitable reality of death is where her prose shines brightest.

Kirk’s new novel is a constant reminder of how we operate in unpredictable, incalculable and quandary-filled existences and it is the destiny of us all to become dust. It’s a grim reality, but Kirk reminds the reader of the power of love, impermanence and connection.

The heavens Vivienne visits have an undeniable air of fantasy, yet as fantastical as they may be, Vivienne feels torn between her final destination and what she may leave behind on earth. Vivienne’s images of heaven are emotionally charged ones, each centering on a love – past and present, familial and passionate.

Kirk frequently references an Italian opera called “La Boheme,” a children’s book called “The One and Only Ivan” and the northern red cardinal, all of which playfully connect to the themes of the novel.

While the novel is well written, the time traveling and the alternating character perspectives occasionally make the novel difficult to follow. The characters are also complex and none of them, with the exception of Vivienne and Noah, are given enough depth and development.

A novel that works to encapsulate the entire life of a single person, as well as their afterlife, is bound for a few missteps.  However, “The Extraordinary Journey of Vivienne Marshall” is a compelling story with very believable characters and events.

Reminiscent of “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel, “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” by Mitch Albom and in the spirit of “When Dreams May Come,” Kirk’s new novel will simultaneously warm the heart and inspire the soul. The nature of love, the variety and magic of life, unending hope and the importance of saying goodbye are central to this uplifting tale.

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