Hugh Nissenson’s The Days of Awe is a novel of great scope, juggling many topics around a central theme of the nature of religion in human life. Generally, the novel handles these topics well, although it offers no really new insights into the problem of evil in the world, or offers any bold vision of religion and its discontents.
Rather, Nissenson presents normal people struggling with the big questions of life and death. The result is prosaic, and the novel’s narration, never really escaping the character’s voices, suffers as a result. Reading the novel we get the sense we have heard and read this before, which I suspect is Nissenson’s point.
I was also disappointed to find this is a “9-11” novel. Of course, that event is fair game , but in this novel, it comes off as distraction. Nissenson builds tension in the novel by steadily adding layer upon layer of small, daily events that come to destroy people. 9-11 arrives as a shock to the system of the novel, and detracts from the sense of the ordinary horror of life events.
Yet The Days of Awe is still a novel worth reading. Nissenson creates a contemporary novel which commands our respect. It is a serious attempt to get at the roots of this thing called human life. It succeeds even when it fails.