Book Review: The Happy Valley
Reviewed by Nathaniel Drenner
A thought-provoking exploration of the past, the future, and the worlds we construct for ourselves
Early in Benjamin Harnett’s The Happy Valley, the first-person narrator recalls his youth on “the farm”—not an actual farm but a farmhouse repurposed for summertime child care in his upstate New York hometown. It is the sort of place that may bring to mind an idyllic childhood: woods to explore, ponds for swimming, lemonade and popsicles and PB&J for lunch, well-worn architecture to spark the imagination. On a rainy day it’s also the perfect atmosphere for “the game,” a Dungeons & Dragons-style role-playing adventure concocted by the narrator and his friends.
“…[W]e rinsed ourselves of clay and mud, gathered up the towels, made our way up the shoulder of earth to the railing, still hot in the sun. We felt equal parts relief, for it was exhausting, and sadness, for every leaving was like another exile from Eden, as we trudged back to the farm. Gradually as swimsuit and hair dried, as the whole earth warmed and was suffused by light, you got to feeling settled and content again.”
The game becomes a club, really a clique, played at the school library when summer is over. Like all things youthful, their interest fades over time—but the influence lasts longer, the significance becomes greater.
With the introduction of an enterprising young girl, a mysterious key, and a secret room, there is a new mystery to explore in the real world. Not all is as it seems, in the farmhouse and elsewhere.
All this is told in retrospect. We learn from the opening sentence that the narrator lives in our near-future, shortly after a revolution has upended the social order of the United States. This speculative setting stands largely in the background, foregrounded but not upstaged by the narrator’s reconstruction of his past.
June, the aforementioned young girl, became his friend then his on-again, off-again romantic partner through adulthood. Eventually, she disappears. The narrator’s attempt to find her unravels her life story, exploring how it intersects with his own.
The story involves a secret society, a potential murder, and a law firm as old as the United States. The layers of plot, setting, and theme turn what could have been a simple young-adult adventure novel into a thought-provoking tale investigating how we construct our past, how societies function, and who gets to decide.
“That’s the point!” we all yelled at him, at last, unsure of what else to say. That’s the point. The point of every book, of every movie, every game. That what you are, and what you experience, is of global significance. And to each of us, then, it couldn’t have possibly felt different. Here we were living out our own importance, our summer of freedom; we could pull adventure out of the air, harden it into words and build a castle.
The novel’s present is our near future, but it spends more time in our shared past. Nostalgia is a powerful pull, and the author evokes it for a general audience as well as those of us who are starting to become of a certain generation. Dusty rural farm settings and a small-town, main-street atmosphere evoke the feeling of an imagined, simpler time. School libraries and computer labs—with their card catalogs, floppy disk computer drives, and Oregon Trail adventures—recall the youth of the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Illustrations peppered throughout the text imitate the woodcut stylings of classic young adult literature.
The near-future itself is also a sort of idyll. In the novel the United States has fragmented into small, apparently egalitarian enclaves, albeit not entirely disconnected from the world at large. It’s a future that in many ways seems improved. Global warming is being addressed, workers share in management of their companies, a universal income allows for improved quality of life, healthcare is not prohibitively expensive. Nevertheless, the author gives us enough perspective to suggest that improvements are not necessarily perfection. The present can feel bleak, but perhaps neither the past nor the future are as rose-colored as we wish them to be.
“My thoughts were, and still are, a jumble. I couldn’t decide if I was observing, or actually taking part, and if I was taking part, was I playing exactly as expected, or holding my own, which, was, of course, what was expected. It was high school all over again, or it had never ended. Nothing ever ends. The players just change.”
The narrator himself is in some ways stagnant during these major cultural shifts. Prone to making broad, sweeping statements about human nature, he is alternatingly humble and pompous, reticent and energetic, apathetic and decisive—probably as many of us would be in similar situations. He is a complex and reflective protagonist caught up in the sweep of history. His circular thought process and nonlinear narrative structure can be frustrating at times but is also a byproduct of the novel’s subject matter.
The Happy Valley offers fascinating insights about the relationship between the past and the future, anchoring its philosophical musings in a personal story of rediscovery. To blend the abstract with the concrete, to mash-up genres with intention—neither is any small feat, and this novel pulls off the sleight of hand necessary to bring its distinct vision to life.
Genre: Literary & General Fiction / Dystopian
Print Length: 449 pages
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