Readers who fell in love with Silas House’s writing after the release of his widely acclaimed 2018 novel, Southernmost, will likely have that love deepened by Lark Ascending, the author’s latest work of fiction, as it pulls off the difficult task of being an apocalyptic novel that is truly harrowing, yet even more deeply affecting and tender.
Set in the near future, the novel is narrated by the titular Lark who, now near the end of his life, recaps the story of his young adulthood, detailing a time when America and most of the larger world was on fire and an extremist group known as the Fundamentalists (or “Fundies,” as Lark often calls them) threatened human survival.
The Fundies are particularly violent and cruel, targeting those who oppose their narrowly focused way of life: “The Fundies were in control now and they were the only kinds of believers who were allowed to believe and anyone who defied them disappeared like my aunts. The Fundies always had excuses; they weren’t taken away or killed because of who they were or what they believe in or who they loved.” As a gay man, Lark knows he is particularly under the eye of the group, just like his aunts.
To escape the increasing human and environmental dangers that surround them, Lark and his family board a refugee-packed boat across the Atlantic to Ireland, which is rumored to have been spared from the darkness that plagues other parts of the world. The trip proves to be a horrific experience, containing multiple moments of mistreatment and meanness — all made much worse by a staggering loss of life.
Once Lark arrives on Irish shores, his circumstances don’t initially improve. He does not find the utopia he dreamed of. Instead, he’s back where he began, running for his life and surrounded by death and destruction.
I’m sure it sounds as if Lark Ascending is a bleak novel, and it does certainly have its fair share of defeat in the beginning. However, the heart of Lark’s story is actually one of great kindness and beauty. This is very much a book about connection, family, and, above all else, hope. It is this deep hopefulness that allows House’s novel to transcend the constraints of some other dystopian novels.
Hope, in fact, appears early in Lark’s journey. After surviving the voyage to Ireland, he speaks about his internal compass pointing toward hopefulness — and life. He admits, “Almost always there is something in us that wants to live. It might be precious to say that my desire to survive was fueled by some deep love for the world, but the truth is that I got up because I would not allow them to win. ‘Them’ being everybody who had led to this moment for me and my family. All of the people who had power when so many didn’t. I wouldn’t let them beat me.” It’s a beautiful sentiment that hits stronger as the narrative progresses.
And this feeling of hope isn’t something that’s purely internalized by our narrator. It builds externally as we learn about Lark’s family. Even as conditions turn increasingly harsh, Lark’s father tells his son to appreciate the bright light from the stars: “I was twelve years old by this time and I understood everything. Or at least I thought I did. I understood that my father was not just telling me that we were able to see more stars now because of the greater darkness. He was also telling me that there was a positive even in the worst situations. My father was saying we had to latch onto moments like this to keep from giving up.”
Lark also finds hope in the family he makes along the way. Seamus, a beagle that is a bona fide scene stealer and knows true loss much like Lark, gives the young man the desire to carry on. Helen, another friend Lark makes in Ireland, finds her own desire to live reignited by Lark and Seamus. House, through his memorable characters, crafts a beautiful portrait of the need for community — and the way our love for one another is sometimes as nourishing to our being as food or water.
House writes with a lyricism that sings, and it meshes so beautifully with the natural world he describes — both the past world and the one that is on the horizon of being reborn. Lark Ascending is full of rich colors and sounds and images, brimming with the majesty of life.
Bradley Sides is the author of a collection of short stories, Those Fantastic Lives. He teaches writing at Calhoun Community College and was an instructor at Humanities Tennessee’s Young Writers’ Workshop.