What unites a death doula and a New York City Mennonite choir? What does a UFO investigator have in common with a repentant ex-con? According to the Australian American writer Sarah Krasnostein, the answer is belief, or the blind trust that a greater reality exists beyond the limits of human perception. Through a series of interviews conducted over four years, she examines the nature of human belief as both a uniting and a divisive force. The Believer: Encounters with the Beginning, the End, and Our Place in the Middle is an ambitious project, an attempt to make sense of something essential but frustratingly elusive.
Krasnostein selected an eccentric cast of believers for this book, her second after 2017’s award-winning The Trauma Cleaner. There’s the Buddhist death doula, Annie, who helps a social worker with cancer find peace as she approaches the last days of her life. There’s a group of ghost hunters who use light-up rubber duckies to try to communicate with lingering spirits in abandoned buildings. And there’s Lynn, an ex-convict who killed her abusive husband and is now a devout Episcopalian trying to support other women experiencing intimate partner violence.
For Krasnostein, what unites her radically dissimilar interview subjects is the intensity of their beliefs, whether it’s the fervour of a UFO investigator studying a disappeared airplane in Australia or the missionary zeal of a microbiologist disavowing evolution at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky. She doesn’t shy away from engaging in difficult and at times seemingly ridiculous conversations about aliens, paranormal activity and the biblical age of the Earth. Yet she also relates quieter, subtler discussions on the personal challenges of belief: how a person like Lynn struggles to understand the goodness of God after a lifetime of abuse and imprisonment.
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Not every story in The Believer is equally compelling, however, and Krasnostein’s own interest in her subjects seems to wane in the book’s latter half, especially in her interviews with young Mennonite families and conspiracy theorists. The book’s overall flow, too, is strained by its fragmented structure, as Krasnostein alternates interview subjects between chapters rather than recounting stories in order.
The author is at her best when she finds notes of harmony connecting these disparate experiences of belief, and then her prose lights up with the excitement of a long-sought personal revelation: “Six different stories, six different notes in the human song of longing for the unattainable. The years I spent writing this book showed me that in order to truly live — with ourselves and with each other — something has to die.”
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Ultimately, what’s most intriguing in this book isn’t the many believers featured, but rather Krasnostein herself as the writer, grappling throughout with skepticism, curiosity, personal biases and even embarrassment as she comes up against polarizing convictions that she personally lacks. Krasnostein’s disbelief is the book’s undercurrent, and despite her mostly brisk, collected narrative voice, in moments she betrays how shaken she’s become by her encounters with deeply committed believers who are articulate and confident in things unseen.
Rather than presenting a unified portrait of human faith as its title suggests, The Believer instead is a fascinating depiction of one individual disbeliever’s encounter with the irrational: a portrait of the author’s expanding capacity for embracing the reality of inexplicable experiences in life on Earth.
Marie Trotter is a writer and PhD student in literature and theatre in Montreal. This piece first appeared in Broadview’s April/May 2022 issue with the title “Longing for a greater reality.”
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