It is classified primarily as a mystery, but the core theme of Four Years from Home, by Larry Enright touches more upon the mystery of self-exploration and relationships than perhaps the typical murder mystery.
The book opens with a family hearing news from Kenyon College, that the youngest son, Harry, is dead. However, there is no body to recover and Tom, the oldest son, is commissioned by the family to travel to the college and get to the bottom of what happened.
Right from the start, Tom proves to us to be a rather unlikable character, which is part of the charm of the story because with unlikable protagonists, an author then draws us in to look for how this protagonist might either be redeemed, or become likeable in spite of his unpleasant nature. It is interesting that the most unlikable sibling is the one sent to investigate, but Tom is the oldest, which is a believable reason to send him. The first twist occurs when Tom arrives at the college, but before he can introduce himself, he is immediately mistaken for his presumed dead brother. Tom then chooses to slip into this charade, believing that perhaps he can find out more regarding his brother’s death than if he revealed his true identity. The story continues in this path, with Tom discovering the life of Harry during his four years from home – and giving us a final curve ball at the end.
The biggest strength of this novel is that you do indeed want to find out what happened to Harry and what his life was all about during his college life. The relationship between Tom and Harry is a fascinating one, and viewing Harry through Tom’s eyes from the past to present is, of course, where we learn more about Tom. The story definitely has its humorous moments. Tom holds a constant commentary in his head about all that he experiences and even if we find out about how much of a bully and a pain in the ass he is and always has been through these experiences, we also can’t help but relate to many of them. This commentary is what gives us most of Tom’s characterization and though I really like the way Enright shows us Tom’s nature, I felt it was a little bit overdone, as though he were trying to include every funny moment we remember about mischievous childhoods. Also, Tom is clearly so unpleasant, selfish, and self-centered, that I struggled to understand how his family tolerated him at all – or that he even turned out the way he did. In other words, he was a bit larger than life. The running commentary, itself, gave me an excellent insight into what was to come — which means foreshadowing well done. A great climactic twist, but an odd tonal shift in the denouement.
A bit of mystery, a bit of humor, a bit of mental intrigue – by the halfway mark I was running through all kinds of theories and predictions in my head, which kept me reading – and you’ll want to know how it ends, too.
ADDENDUM: Hey! I just found out Enright plays some music for us all online, too. Check it out… nice.