Always Coming Home: A Novel

Image of Always Coming Home: A Novel
Release Date: 
June 6, 2023
Harper Perennial
Reviewed by: 

"An impressive feat of creativity, part storytelling, part invented anthropology, layered together to give a deeper sense of reality."

Always Coming Home is labeled "A Novel" by its publisher but the book is much bigger than a simple novel. Le Guin has created a whole vivid world in these pages. She starts with a story, the life of young girl whose parents are from different tribes with different values. Night Owl, also known as Condor's Daughter, starts her story with a description of her home, her people, her life. Rituals bind the people and infuse Night Owl's life with meaning:

"Because I had only one grandmother and grandfather in the Valley, a Blue Clay man called Ninepoint had asked to be side-grandfather to me. As I was about to be nine years old, he came over from their summerhouse in Bear Creek Canyon to teach me the songs of the Fathers. Soon after that we went back with him to Sinshan to make ready to dance the Water. . . . Singing and doing heyiya all day long in the town that was empty and open, I began to feel my soul opening out and spreading out with the other souls of the dancers to fill the emptiness."

Night Owl's story is interspersed with a rich anthropological archive of all the peoples. There are poems, songs, stories, histories, even a completely invented language and a dictionary for it in the back of the book. It's a brave, new world Le Guin conjures up here. The first bit of history is the Serpentine Codex, which is both quoted from and described in great detail, including charts and illustrations.

"This text provides a compact summary of the structure of society, the year, and the universe, as perceived by the people of the Valley."

A series of folklore follows, "Some Stories Told Aloud." These stories have the feel of much shared tales, a way of transmitting history and knowledge, values and morals. Poems in a similar vein follow:

"You can have the afterbirth,

not the lamb, Coyote.

The ewe has sharp hooves,

better look out, Coyote.

I can have some girls, not that one, Coyote

Her mother doesn't like me, better look out, Coyote."

Besides the stories, poems, songs, and bits from Night Owl's life, there are histories, written chronicles about troubles faced, explorations, encounters with strange tribes. As all these layers accumulate, the world that Le Guin opened with becomes so complex and multifaceted, it feels like another universe from another time, though whether it's past or future is impossible to say. Night Owl ends her story like this:

"So there is no more history in my life after that; all that I could bring into the Valley from outside I have brought, all that I could remember I have written; the rest has been lived and will be lived again."

But the book isn't over, far from it. More documents, poems, and stories reveal more lives, more histories, much more living for the reader to do. This is an impressive feat of creativity, part storytelling, part invented anthropology, layered together to give a deeper sense of reality. Stories, it's been said after all, are lies that tell us what is really true.