We Are Called to Rise weaves together the separate stories of three people living in Las Vegas. Luis, a soldier wounded in Iraq; Bashkim, an immigrant boy whose family is straddling the divide between Albania and the US; and Avis, a woman who finds herself alone after thirty years of marriage.
I read this book after it was announced as a Radio 2 Book Club choice last month. I thought it would be nice to try and read it in time for the discussion with the author on the show, so I downloaded it straightaway and got reading, but I got distracted by something else and ended up only finishing it at the start of this month.
We Are Called to Rise is a very, very good book. Although I wasn’t sure about it at first, after a while I got completely immersed in it. In the opening scene, we are introduced to Avis, a middle-aged woman with tragedy and loss in her past, but who has spent many years in a happy and loving marriage with a man who is just about to leave her. She is completely blindsided by it, especially given that he chooses to announce that he has fallen in love with another woman while she is naked, and planning to seduce him in order to reignite the spark in the marriage. Avis’ story is probably the least interesting of the book to me, and yet it is still compelling and sad. It’s an age old story really; being left by a husband who has found excitement and love with a younger woman.
Luis, the soldier, spends a large part of the book in Washington D.C., having been injured in Iraq but remembering nothing about how he sustained his injuries. It transpires that his injuries are self-inflicted, and he spends most of the novel coming to terms with what has happened to him. His story intersects quite early with that of Bashkim, the Albanian immigrant boy who is bright and loving, but is struggling at home due to his father’s issues.
The fulcrum of the novel is a tragedy that affects Bashkim and Avis, and Luis is also drawn quickly into the story. At various points throughout the novel, we are also treated to the viewpoint of Roberta, who works as a social worker in the city, and works hard to be an advocate on behalf of at-risk children. These characters are drawn together by this tragedy, throwing Bashkim’s and Avis’ lives into freefall, but also by their shared hometown. Las Vegas is painted in a very different way to how we usually see Sin City portrayed in popular culture. It’s hard to see past the Strip, the neon lights and the gambling, but there is suburban population who make their homes here. As a native, Laura McBride manages to show us this side of the city very well, and it’s an interesting change.
I didn’t expect to have such an emotional reaction to We Are Called to Rise. I cried hard, twice, and both times it was for Bashkim. He’s exceptionally well-written, eliciting sympathy from the reader from the very beginning, which slowly turns into admiration as the novel concludes. Each character is ‘called to rise’ at a time of crisis – the title comes from an Emily Dickinson poem:
We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan,
Our statures touch the skies–
We never know how high we are (1176) by Emily Dickinson
It ultimately ends up being a story of hope arising out of despair. We meet three characters at the worst points in their lives, and the joy of the novel is in watching them trying to build a good life out of a terrible situation. We Are Called to Rise is definitely recommended, but beware Bashkim. He will make you weep.
We Are Called to Rise
First published: July 2014
Simon & Schuster UK