Book Review: Marshlands, by Matthew Olshan

Originally published in the February 11th, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

Matthew Olshan's Marshlands opens with an aging prisoner being released from an unnamed jail. Beaten down by his jailers, the man is returned to "the capital," a city once familiar to him but now entirely unrecognizable. He scrounges for food, sleeps on benches on the mall and seeks refuge in the warmth of the free museums when he can--until he is unexpectedly caught in the midst of a protest, injured and rescued by a kindly museum worker.

Restored to a semblance of his previous self, the man is offered a job in a hospital for refugees from the marshlands. This, it turns out, is his calling, as he once spent years as a military doctor in the marshlands. From there, Olshan's brief but poignant novel moves backwards in time, exploring this man's history with the occupying army of the marshlands--and revealing the startling crime that put him in jail.

Marshlands is not a novel of specifics: "the capital" is never named as Washington, D.C., the "marshlands" never explicitly identified. Even the main character is not named until well into the story. The lack of detail can be jarring at first but ultimately is what makes the novel so powerful. The political and emotional struggles that plague the army and the people of the marshlands are specific to one time, one place and one waning culture, but their lessons can be applied to the struggles between the occupiers and the occupied that have plagued our history for centuries--and continue to do so today.


Marshlands | Matthew Olshan | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | February 2014 | Hardcover | 176 pages

1 comment

  1. I've been aching to get to this book, I just love the premise (and that cover is so wonderful). Glad to hear it ended up working out for you!


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