Reviews of On the Precipice of the Labyrinth
Snowden’s sweeping historical novel centers on a young American’s experience of the Spanish Civil War, offering vividly realized depictions of war-torn Spain as well as William Benning’s home back in the states, which is never far from this thoughtful protagonist’s mind, as even a gunshot stirs complex associations: “a loud crack, like a firecracker we used to set off in our back yard on the Fourth of July back in Charlottesville.” That rich admixture—fear and memory, violence and nationalism linked to play and celebration—exemplifies Snowden’s approach, as Benning, who grew up “clueless about Spain and political arguing,” develops a love for Spanish inspired by a Cuban neighbor who opens his “eyes to a bigger world than Charlottesville or Virginia or even the United States.”
Less than thirty pages in, Benning’s out in that world, freshly graduated from the University of Virginia and now a mate on a cargo ship bound for La Havre, the crossing just the first of many passages of persuasively detailed adventure. Benning’s not traveling out of conviction like Hemingway or Orwell. His goal: to see and understand Spain for himself. What he encounters, of course, is both thrilling—tapas washed down with wine from Jerez, the beauty of the Cantabrian coast, the possibility of romance with a woman he meets while hitchhiking—and eventually harrowing, as he faces the horrors that ravaged a divided Spain.
Snowden’s emphasis, in handling the war, is on people and their humanity—and their impact on Benning and his understanding of the world— rather than a story of battlefield heroism. He allows the many characters with whom Benning connects to tell their stories in intimate discussions. While he includes tense scenes of hiding and violence, his chief interest is in what it felt like to be alive in this place, at this time—a welcome, humane approach.
Takeaway: A humane novel of an American caught up in the Spanish Civil War, attentive to the joy of living.
From The Prairies Review
Simply engrossing, filled with individual drama and historical intrigue…
A young man from America crosses the Atlantic Ocean to Spain and months of personal upheavals in Snowden’s engrossing debut. 1930s. Charlottesville graduate William Benning, son of a Virginia professor who immigrated to America from Spain in the early 1900s, is keen to experience European culture. William is well-versed in Spanish and knows quite a bit about the political situation in Europe, owing to his father’s position as a professor at the University of Virginia. So, visiting Spain seems like a fine idea. He crosses the Atlantic working on a cargo ship to reach northern France and eventually arrives in Spain, unaware of the life-altering events that will change his perspective about certain things forever. Although the novel gets off to a slow start, once William arrives in Spain, the stakes get higher, as does the tension in the story. William’s first-person narrative voice is engaging. Snowden artfully brings the Spanish culture to life as seen through the eye of a foreigner, delving into the wanderlust of experiencing exotic places and cultures. Throughout William’s grueling journey are hundreds of colorful details, such as the farmers in carriages drawn by horses, the small towns with their early twentieth-century charm, medieval Cathedrals, the rough terrains of the beleaguered Basque country among others. Snowden’s contribution to the Civil War literature in Spain involves almost no depiction of actual fighting but rather its effect on people’s everyday lives as seen through his characters’ eyes, including innocents getting shot or taken prisoners, terribly scarred victims, and the almost equally traumatized survivors who have seen their loved ones getting brutally killed. While there’s no lack of incidence in this historical tale, Snowden’s emphasis on depicting the events in telling instead of showing deprives the book somewhat of narrative power. However, he is an engaging storyteller: he paints the historical backdrop of the Spanish Civil War with utmost skill and precision, and his characterization is excellent. Among the vast cast of characters, it is Williams who stands out the most. He is a deftly drawn character—he is sensitive, introspective, and a romantic at heart, and after spending time in Spain, he comes out as a self-centered, naive young man who has his own notions about the world around him. With a focus on the individual desires and wants, broadening horizons, and romanticism versus reality, this well-researched, engrossing tale provides a compelling portrait of life abroad in 1930’s Spain.