It’s an unusual structure for a book, but upon reading it becomes clear why le Guin chose to take this approach. It would be impossible to get across what she wants in a single narrative, which would be limited by the need to filter it through a single character’s perspective. To build the full picture of a community, a multiplicity of voices and perspectives is needed, forming what John Scalzi describes in the introduction as a ‘gestalt’.
That’s not to say there are no characters or narratives in the book. Split into three parts, the story of Stone Telling is something of a through-line, giving some structure to the dense variety of texts. It is framed as her autobiography, written down for posterity. She described how, as a child, she felt out of place in the Kesh due to her father being from outside the community, and later as an adult she lives among his people, the Condor. Le Guin draws a contrast between the two peoples: the Kesh are peaceful and egalitarian, while the Condor are hierarchical, militarist, and patriarchal. The implication is that the Condor are more like our society, and seeing it through Stone Telling’s point of view makes us realise its absurd and contradictory nature.
There’s so much more I could say about this book that I can’t in this short review, so I’ll end by saying that I thought Always Coming Home was a magnificent achievement. Ursula le Guin is one of my favourite writers, and this, the longest of her books, is a testament to her imaginative vision. It’s a complex, expansive, lyrical, politically engaged, and above all humane work, suffused with the beauty of the natural world and a longing for a better way of living. I loved it.
Review by Charlie Alcock