Book Review: ‘Universal Harvester’ by John Darnielle


Singer John Darniellereleased his follow-up to 2014’s Wolf in the White Van, and it has garnered mixed reactions from around the reading world. This new book Universal Harvester follows three separate plots in three separate timelines and shifts without book1warning between them in a way which will no doubt throw readers off. In addition every so often an unnamed narrator pop ups to give give exposition or to look at things from a different angle.

The bulk of Universal Harvester centers on Jeremy, a young guy working at a video store in rural Iowa. He lives with his dad and together they silently comfort each other and deal with the loss of Jeremy’s mother years before. The events of the story kick off when the customers at his video store keep returning videos, complaining that someone has spliced creepy footage from a farmhouse into the films. Spurred by his curiosity, Jeremy, along with his boss and a store customer begin looking into the origin of this unsettling footage. This leads them to a mysterious farm in the next town, presided over by a mysterious woman named Lisa. As we are preparing to accustom ourselves to this new story element, Darnielle moves into a story arc, following Lisa’s parents. The part of this thread is her mother Irene who becomes heavily involved in a cult before vanishing. As these two separate narratives are being adjusted to, two college students and their retired parents discover the VHSfootage which was recorded at the farm house and begin trying to track down the truth.

This flowing between these three arcs is abrupt and is bound to throw readers off, but all in all it is still well written. John Darnielle has crafted very real and likable characters, whom the audiences can become invested in. The world he has created for them to live in is very immersive as he perfectly describes rural Iowa and the people who live there. The issues in the book come from the plot, not only does he jump without warning between three timelines, Darnielle also brings up a number of potentially interesting plot points which ultimately do not amount to anything. All along one gets the feeling the book is leading to a true dynamite ending, but sadly conclusion is bound to feel like a letdown to many readers. Universal Harvester is far from a terrible book, but there are issues in the way it is structured which is bound to be a turn-off for many.

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