Author:  Chris Fabry
Title:  Almost Heaven
Publisher:  Tyndale

Pain and joy unexpectedly, and often, intersect in Billy Allman's life. Born to a poor West Virginian family, he experiences multiple, life-altering tragedies as a young boy. Ingrained from an early age with a love for God, Billy wants to serve him with all that he is. But, in others' eyes, he's not much. Though talented at mechanics, social skills elude him, and he grows up to become a reclusive oddball.

Part of his oddness includes his musical genius. Billy can make the mandolin sing. Playing bluegrass melodies brings him sweet memories of his father, who first introduced him to the instrument. His skill becomes well-known in the area, even netting him an opportunity to travel as part of a gospel band. Bluegrass becomes Billy's soul-language, the best way he knows how to communicate his feelings and faith. So building a bluegrass- and scripture-centered radio station out of his own home seems like a natural step to fulfilling his purpose in life.

Misunderstood, yet strangely unwilling to correct misperceptions, Billy struggles through hardships mostly alone. His few friends do not understand why he won't let them in. Have the losses and trauma of his past scarred him permanently? Can he break free of the emotional chains with which he seems to bind himself?

Since the story is told through Billy's eyes, only that which he wishes to reveal is available for the reader to know. But instead of relying solely on first-person narrative, the author utilizes an intriguing third-person character: Malachi, Billy's guardian angel. Malachi has two purposes. First, he provides a wide-angle picture of Billy's life as years pass. He narrates how time passes between Billy's zoomed-in reflections on certain events. Yet his intermittent narration provides only minor background on events and people in Billy's life.

Malachi's second purpose is to act as the author's spokesperson. He asks the hard questions about how pain can be part of God's plan, about a human's worth in God's sight, about justice and injustice. He verbalizes the universal consternation felt when suffering seems to overwhelm a good person. "Humans suffer with the underside of the tapestry, unable to see the beauty in their situation, for they cannot see how the trouble of life fits with ‘The Plan.'"

Fabry is a talented writer with a lilting flow to his words. Billy's speech pattern sounds authentically "country"; the details of modern-day rural West Virginia are strikingly real. Readers will enjoy Billy's train of thought, his perspective on life, as much as they will sympathize with the immense hardship he must endure.

I usually squint skeptically at novels that include heavenly beings who are supposed to give us that divine perspective, the answers to the deep questions the characters are asking. Most of the time authors can't escape the hokiness factor—they seem to be cheating on the craft of writing.

But Fabry mostly gets away with it. A few of Malachi's scenes seem contrived, but overall he provides needed insight to the story. Billy—and therefore the reader—is limited by his own perceptions and experiences. Malachi can see what Billy cannot. And the story needs an outsider's observations in order to realize the truth that God can and does indeed use heartache and injustice to further His plan.



**This review first posted on November 30, 2010.