It's (almost) the oldest story in the book
Eden revisited, with less poetry and more squabbling
Writer David Maine appears to have adopted as his mantra the lyrics from "Do Re Mi": "Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start."
The beginning in this case is the Bible's first murder, the story of Cain and Abel, and their parents' exile from Eden. Obviously, Maine's not the first writer to draw inspiration from Genesis: John Milton did pretty well by the creation story.
But Fallen is less epic poetry and angels with flaming swords, and more family squabbles and the daily grind. Adam's and Eve's struggles to survive after they're kicked out of paradise (much raw fish is eaten), and their stumbling efforts to raise a family without succumbing to bitterness catch the imagination no matter the denomination of the reader.
That ability to re-create the daily life and emotions of Biblical icons was also evident in Maine's debut novel, "The Preservationist," which flipped ahead a few chapters in Genesis to re-create Noah's floating zoo. But Maine's decision to structure "Fallen" backward, beginning with Cain as an old man and ending with Adam's and Eve's first night in exile, unfortunately causes the narrative momentum to sputter.
Another difficulty may have been in the sparseness of the source material. Where the story of Noah takes up several chapters, the murder of Abel by Cain is barely one - and that includes several verses of begats.
Maine does hew strictly to the material as laid down: God's rejection of Cain's offering, the famous line "Am I my brother's keeper," the mark that isolated Cain from the rest of humanity, his journey to the land of Nod, and his subsequent fathering of a son and a city. (Maine doesn't attempt to explain one of the great plot holes of the creation story: where Cain found someone to marry. Extra people just start showing up during Cain's and Abel's teenage years, much to the befuddlement of the first family.)
Where Maine does share a similarity with Milton is that God, once again, doesn't make the most compelling fictional character. Here, he's implacable and unforgiving and mostly absent. (The devil is reduced to a bit part that Eve suspects just may have been a figment of her imagination.)
When Adam tries to explain his origin to his oldest sons - a conversation way trickier than the birds and the bees - surly, intelligent Cain is less than impressed.
"And why did God, in his infinite wisdom and mercy, do that?" he demands of his parents' exile from paradise. "This whole story makes no sense! Why would God create a perfect place and then allow the Devil into it, just to trick you? Why tell you not to do something when he could have just removed the tree, and so avoided the problem completely? -I don't know, admits Adam. -Craziness."
Cain's questioning impatience with God is more like his mother, who vastly prefers sunny busybody Abel to her moody firstborn. Eve suspects that she may have been incorrectly made in some way, and believes that her oldest boy is also fatally flawed. "If she had been taught to sin, who then taught her? God and Adam were her only companions. As for the serpent, she had seen him only the one time. And besides, if the serpent was evil, what was it doing in the Garden in the first place? Far more likely, then, that Eve was born a sinner; or if not born exactly, then created with some flaw that led her astray as surely as a snake, born legless, will crawl on the ground. But in that case, how can she be held accountable for her acts? It's as mad as blaming the snake for its lack of legs."
Not that Eve has much time for reflection: 14 children in 16 years have worn her out.
The sections of "Fallen" that deal with the family's home life are the most successful, because Maine taps into universal emotions: parents who know they don't know what they're doing, yet feel powerless to prevent mistakes; a father who worries about a rebellious teen; a son who feels rejected by his father; and a younger sibling who wishes that they could just all get along, but who only causes trouble when he tries to make peace.
Also believable are Cain's years of loneliness, as he re-creates his parents' exile in the wilderness, and the horror he feels when he meets a young man who was "inspired" by his story and ensured that Cain wouldn't be the only murderer in history.
While "Fallen" is unlikely to join "Paradise Lost" in the canon, it has strength as a portrait of regret and domestic tragedy - enough so that many readers will be eager to say what Maine has to say when he gets to Exodus.
• Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.