Upon This Pale Hill revolves around socially-awkward, angst-ridden Brandon Marcel, a self-described nerd “who wants to do good” but has no clue how.
Brandon is about to graduate with a business degree from a small North Carolina college with no job prospects. In addition to his altruistic goals, Brandon wants a girlfriend, an as-yet-unknown woman he dubs Aisling. But his attempts to achieve this are mired by his dreary personality. He has no confidence, is unmotivated, and overthinks everything.
Each chapter represents a calendar month conveying the passage of time. The story jumps from Brandon’s thoughts to his interactions with others and to brief, episodic descriptions of his few friends. At one point, the story suffers a jarring, abrupt shift from North Carolina to the Southwest and back again as Brandon begins a long-distance friendship with Janelle in New Mexico.
Author Patrick Ashe is a skillful writer who can deftly paint a scene: “Brandon Marcel looked up at the clear blue sky covering the Carolina Piedmont. He heard the hum of the year’s remaining crickets, the eight-bit chime of his cell phone’s sent text, and the crunching footsteps of his one true friend.”
Unfortunately, he’s prone to overwriting. Combined with Brandon’s constant introspection, this leads to even simple moments becoming overblown. When Brandon sees a woman who seems upset, for example: “The momentum of his conscience compelled him to temporarily suspend his introversion and speak. ‘Hey, is there something I can help you find?’”
Many of the author’s attempts to be clever fall flat: “Always clad in darker shades of gray, he looked like a modern-day Lewis Carroll stuck in a goth phase . . . with a side of pyromania.”
And some sentences simply make no sense: “The rocks in her yard sat lifelessly.”
Readers will find compelling moments in Upon This Pale Hill. But fewer attempts by the author to be artful and more focus on simple clarity would greatly improve this tale.