The Novel Cure: Literary prescriptions for not paying attention

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The Independent Culture

Ailment: Not paying attention

Cure: The Mountain Can Wait by Sarah Leipciger

We hear a lot about the importance of being present and living "in the now" these days – mostly as a path to inner peace and happiness. But what about paying attention in order to achieve great things, or to build strong bonds with others – or simply to stay alive? Sarah Leipciger's chilling tale of a family in the Canadian Rockies, for whom a lack of attention proves devastating, both for them and others, is a sobering reminder that we cannot expect our lives to look after themselves while our minds drift off elsewhere.

The book opens as Curtis – 22 years old and driving home from a party – takes his eyes off the curved mountain road for a moment to look for his tobacco tin. The girl he hits – her face in the headlights "a sulphuric flare of a match" – does not die straight away; but Curtis, terrified and confused, decides to drive on rather than engage with what has happened.

These critical lapses of attention are grievous; but the boy's fate is further sealed when his father,Tom, fails to notice the change in Curtis – or even to hear his blurted confession. A man of few words, Tom is still reverberating from having found himself a father – and then a single parent. That both Curtis and his sister grow up thinking their father's emotional unavailability is a punishment to them for existing may or may not be justified. But the fact remains that, at the moment of Curtis's cry for help, Tom is too busy fiddling with a valve on a blocked U-bend to hear what his son is trying to say.

In fact, Tom loves his children fiercely, and it's not just them he lets down – he also manages to lose his girlfriend, Carolina, and very nearly his livelihood. He and Curtis pay highly for their inattention; and by the end of the novel we know that they – and we – will never again fail to hear and see what's happening right now. µ