Katherine Sherbrooke '89 releases her debut novel

by Kripa Shrestha | 10/20/16 12:00am

Alumna Katherine Sherbrooke ’89’s debut novel “Fill the Sky” is a deeply sensitive novel about three middle-aged college friends, Tess, Ellie and Joline, who must rush to an unanticipated spiritual awakening in the wake of Ellie’s cancer diagnosis. Facing likely death, Ellie and her friends journey to the mountains of Otavalo, Ecuador as a last resort to find a cure. They did not anticipate, however, that healing Ellie’s body would require the three women to heal their souls first. “Fill the Sky” is a story of soul-searching — of a journey that is the culmination of the three protagonists’ lives thus far, of the choices they have made, of the commitments they have pledged and of the fidelities they have sworn and betrayed.

Sherbrooke’s exquisite descriptions of Otavalo’s landscapes and its people invite the reader to partake in the trio’s enthralling journey and bring experiences that may be entirely foreign and distant to the reader closer to the home. The novel, while entirely fictional, was inspired by Sherbrooke’s own journey to Ecuador with a group of friends in 2011.

“We didn’t go for physical reasons so the premise of the novel is entirely fictional,” Sherbrooke said. “But we were also going for soul-searching. It was such a unique setting, an experience that was like nothing else I had ever experienced.”

The reader, for whom the unusual experiences described in the book are completely alien, can relate to Tess, the protagonist’s firm rationalist and skeptic. On the other end of the spectrum, there is free-spirited Joline, the orchestrator of the trip. In between the two we have Ellie, who takes the leap into the unknown to strengthen her personal faith and as a desperate measure to match her desperate times. In urging characters to act and often in radically different ways than they are accustomed to, the crisis at the heart of the novel is conducive to pulling in a skeptic like Tess, Sherbrooke said, and challenges the reader’s convictions and inspires dialogue ­— which is ultimately Sherbrooke’s goal.

“I feel like I grew up on books so much that I learned about humankind and empathy through books,” Sherbrooke said. “Fiction is a great way to go to really unusual places and situations from the comfort of your own couch, if you will.”

Through her fiction, Sherbrooke hopes to create conversation — mostly about women — on topics she calls “very universal but very real,” such as health care, faith-keeping, marriage, friendship, fidelity, truth and hope. Ultimately, Sherbrooke urges the reader to ponder, “Who owns the truth? And who owns the right to truth, the ability to share that truth?”

After reading her work, I continued to ponder her characters and their experiences long since turning over the novel’s final page, I can definitively confirm that Sherbrooke accomplishes her goal of sparking conversation and inspiring contemplation. Sherbrooke’s commitment to detail, to capturing the nuances of her characters’ complexity without undermining or removing them from their contextual affinities, is an impressive feat that she masterfully achieves in “Fill the Sky.”

We never do find out if Ellie’s cancer has been cured, but in the grand scheme of the novel as it unfolds, such a conclusion seems irrelevant. Acknowledgement of Ellie’s mortality — and our own — is essential to spiritual transformation, but not the novel’s objective. In this way, the ending, while ambiguous, is a satisfactory resolution to the tension that builds steadily with every chapter, leaving a lasting impression on the reader. “Fill the Sky” is anything but defeatist — it is a compelling story of hope, of friendship and of the complexity of our human experiences.