John Steinbeck considered ‘East of Eden’ to be his greatest novel; not surprising when you consider the subject matter, the cast of characters, and the fact that it’s semi-autobiographical.
In true Steinbeck style, it is ponderous and pontificating, yet evocative and thought-provoking; he keeps his monologues to a minimum, and leaves room for the reader’s own interpretation and thoughts.
The story is set in 1900s California, in the Salinas Valley; as usual, Steinbeck writes about the country he knows. From the very beginning, I was drawn into a landscape that is foreign to me but can easily be imagined thanks to Steinbeck’s beautifully descriptive writing. I could feel the dry winds sweeping across the parched fields, and feel the mud squelching between my toes during the rains.
I never like to go into the plot of a novel I review, simply because I don’t like to spoil it for anyone who might to choose to read it. However, I think it is safe to say that ‘East of Eden’ is essentially a re-telling of the story of Cain and Abel. The story revolves around the Trask and Hamilton families, their struggles and triumphs, all set between the turn of the century and the end of the First World War.
It’s a story about redemption and free will, love, and good versus evil. It’s a story heavy with biblical allusions; there are many, many parallels drawn with the story of Cain and Abel*. The most obvious is the naming of the main “pairs” of characters (where one is considered “good”, the other “bad”) with names starting with “C” and “A”: Charles and Adam, Caleb and Aron, Cathy and Abra. There’s also the favouring of one child over the other, the subsequent hatred towards the favoured child, and the dark mark imposed on the “evil” character in the pairing.
All-in-all, I really enjoyed ‘East of Eden’. It was an enjoyable and insightful read, and while I’m sure I missed many of the biblical references, I still found myself thinking more deeply than I expected at times.
* I don’t know many of the stories in The Bible, but I am familiar with Cain and Abel – I think most people are, right??