All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

This much lauded book by a best-selling and feted literary author (Granta named him one ‘Best 21 American Novelists’ ) has been reviewed a quite a bit on this and other book-sites, mainly positively, but also with some grumbles. So perhaps this is a little late, but I would like to add to the pot.

Sweeping human stories told against the backdrop of war (especially WWII with its moral certainties) come with a yoke, a built in brace of sorts. You are guaranteed that there will be acts of great cruelty and great caring, and they will be amplified by the confusion and cacophony of war in ways that human dramas in peacetime cannot rely. You sort of know what you are getting into before you start, but this is not so much a criticism as statement of genre. Before I get flamed, many a great novel has been nurtured on this fertile ground, but the borders of narrative are fairly sharply drawn, particularly if the story spans the entire time frame of the war.

So it is with this book. A blind French girl child (5 in 1934 when the story starts, and 16 at the end of the war) – a beautiful innocent, protected and treasured by her loved ones and protectors until they sucked into the maw of war, one by one, leaving her alone and scared, facing what she knows must come. A young German boy, an orphan and radio savant, conscripted into the Wehrmacht for his skills, trapped by forces that initially he does not understand, and then cannot resist, finally fighting back with a small act of kindness. And nastiness and cruelties meted out by sundry Nazis of diverse and creative malice. And of course, humanity stripped to its core, with all the cliches that this portends.

Lest this sound a tad harsh, I should soften. It is beautifully written, and in parts soaringly beautifully written, with minutely observed physical descriptions and studied and gentle character development. The story and plot are carefully crafted from many small threads and draped artfully over the long war years and beyond. The inevitable meeting of the blind French girl and the German orphan boy and their graceful entanglement is quiet and powerful. An ancient and priceless diamond carrying the story along with its history and brute power as the Nazis loot European treasures. Survivors living out their days with their pasts overwhelming their presents. The dead remembered by the tiny and sad shreds of their lives – a letter, a key, a photo, a uniform, a model house. A soft and satisfying ending, ringing melancholic and true.

But there were difficulties along the way. It felt too long (over 500 pages). Someone, perhaps the author or his editor, insisted on wildly oscillating chronologies which completely wrecked the flow of the story for me, adding nothing in tension and occasionally confusion and frustrated flipping back of pages. The chapters were very, very short, mostly less than 2 pages (which was quite interesting for a while, and then jangling).

But I perhaps protest too much. I am left with the taste of the characters and the echoes of the story and a light sadness which has not yet left me. By this measure alone this must  go on my recommend list.

Book review – Euphoria by Lily King

A number of people have asked why I always write good reviews, never bad ones. The reason is simple – I only review books that I like. I stay silent on the rest. Nobody gets hurt.  When I am paid to review, then it is open season, but I review on these bookclubs to recommend, not to dissuade.

But then there are some books which sort of land in the middle. A qualified recommendation. Where I am ambivalent, uncommitted. Surely they deserve a mention. Euphoria is one of them. It has generated, well, euphoric raves from sources as diverse as the NYT, Oprah, National Book Critics Circle, Publishers Weekly, Washington Post – to name but a few. I didn’t really get it, but I can see why others may have.

The dominant and very clever conceit in the book is that all of the characters (actually only three – there are few others of any import) are all based on real people – anthropologist Margaret Mead (named Nell in the novel), her husband Reo Fortune (named Fen) and (one) of her lovers, Gregory Bateson (named Bankson). There were others lovers in Mead’s life, including the famous anthropologist Ruth Benedict who makes an occasional proxy appearance in the plot. The book is set (mainly) in tribal villages in the jungle in colonial New Guinea, in the 1930s.

My knowledge of anthropology is paper thin, what little I have was gleaned from eavesdropping on university conversations when I was a student. There is much anthropology in this book, and much that I learned. It inhabits the plot, loud and insistent and is sharply juxtaposed against the three white Western anthropologists and their interpersonal emotional entanglements as they struggle to learn and document the cultures of the tribes of New Guinea. Lily King goes to great lengths to imagine how Mead worked, she has clearly researched widely and manages to inject a great deal of the science into the narrative – the struggle understand why the tribes behave as they do, their approach to interrogation and understanding and scientific method, the constant struggle with Western conceptions of ‘primitive’, the fight against orthodoxies as Mead reveals sexual behaviours understood as shocking or deviant by many in the US – incest, tranvestism, polygamy, lesbianism.

The anthropologists are strongly drawn, especially Nell/Mead. The sense of place is palpable (the jungles Polynesia and its claustrophobic, dangerous and riotous palette). The storyline and plot is strong. The tribes and their ways are riveting. A fine and poignant ending is fashioned,

So why didn’t I love it like the rest of the literary world? I am not sure. It was not that the writing was a little pedestrian at times, it was not that the few named tribal characters were given little depth, it was not that the love story never touched me, I just didn’t look forward every day to sinking into the world that Lily King had determinedly and meticulously created. Just not really my cup of tea, I suppose. Taste is a fickle thing. I suspect I will be in the minority here, so consider this a quiet and irresolute recommendation. 

Book review – Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

If I had to list my 10 best books of the last year or so, the following would emphatically be on it, probably near the front – Ben Fountain (Billy Lynne’s Long Halftime Walk), Kevin Powers (Yellow Birds) and Philipp Meyer (The Son).

So having not read anything completely transformative in a while I wonder into my local bookstore to have an undirected browse. I pull out a book in the new fiction stack and guess who shouts breathlessly from the front cover? Fountain, Powers and Meyer . Not polite shouts either. Loud, roaring, hot, adamant shouts. Here is a thing, I think. I tend to filter shouts with a good dose of skepticism. But not from these authors. Not all three of them. Not at the same time. So I buy.

Fourth of July Creek is the debut novel by a young US novelist named Smith Henderson. I apologise in advance for what is to follow – a tsunami of superlatives (which is a little embarrassing – reviewers should have more decorum). Language, plot, characters, sense of place, ending, emotional entanglements, interior dialogues, story arcs, unusual and compelling viewpoints (including a recurring set of questions and answers from an unexplained and invisible character, perhaps even the author himself as he made notes to about the story and its characters). The whole lot just folds together like a great complex, beautiful origami, a near perfect combination of linguistic magic and combustive plot.

This book contains harsh stuff, even though gorgeously rendered. The story unfolds in the rural backwaters of Montana in the early 80s around an alcoholic, damaged and despairingly moral social worker named Pete, employed by the Department of Family Services. From amongst his daily horror lists of neglected and abused children, meth or religion-fucked mountain dwellers and trailer trash we follow a number of stories and subplots. A deranged end-of-days fundamentalist and his terrified little boy, forced to move from crevice to cave in freezing and inaccessible mountains while the father waits for the apocalypse, undone by paranoia and the re-living of a scene of a terrible family violence closely witnessed. A damaged and warped teenaged son of a unredeemable crack and meth addict thrown hopelessly into the juvenile detention system, leaving his tiny malnourished sister to the unprotected depredations of her mother and her friends. Pete’s own teenaged daughter, run away and untraceable, lurching unrestrained into big city prostitution, while Pete drinks himself into oblivion to dull the pain. Pete’s divorced wife, mangled into grief and uselessness under cheap religious homilies.

And unexpectedly, amidst the worst of people and circumstances, Henderson manages to rip open rents of courage and humanity and light, illuminating the dark everywhere else, holding this story aloft, keeping it from descending to the cliched places into which a lesser writer would stumble and fall.

This is an unflinching and deeply caring look a world without simple explanations and without neat endings, more hard than soft, more cruel than kind, but it raises itself up to a of a sort of hope, an strange upliftment for the reader even as he averts his eyes.

Make space in your TBR pile. Put this on top.

Book Review – F by Daniel Kehlmann

Review – F by Daniel Kehlmann

I have been trawling lists again. Last year it was the Booker Longlist, which I attacked with unseemly optimism and basically fizzled after about 8 books (I am a slow reader). In December I started on the New York Times 100 Most Notable Books (of which about 20 are fiction, where I tend to nest). I also genuflect at the feet of the NYT book editors – they remain for me the best arbiters of quality writing.

First up – F by Daniel Kehlmann. Who? Exactly. I had never heard of him. He is an young Austrian/German author who is a really big deal in Germany, having struck literary gold a few years back with a novel about the poetics of science called Measuring Time.

F is an odd and riveting little novel, deeply intellectual and concerned with gravid issues of many stripes. The book has 3 main characters (there are others, but all subsumed into background). They are brothers, or more accurately twins and a stepbrother. While some background expository is given, the action, such as it is, takes place in the recent past. The stepbrother is an obese and stolidly atheist Roman catholic priest, through whom the author spelunks issues of faith and reason. The one twin is an asset manager who has lost all of his client’s money through mismanagement and Ponzi-style desperation and who is falling off the edge of sanity as he world collapses around him. The other twin is a failed artist, but spectacularly successful forger of one ageing, famous and reclusive artist, with whom he enters into a relationship as carer, lover, hospice and forger-with-permission (and here we get deep into the territory of ‘what is art, really?’).

The three brothers are not close, they intersect at odd angles and in times of need. Kehlmann uses this wobbly fictional scaffold to basically write a series of essays about matters that obviously are close to him and the resulting novel is a bit uneven, but peppered with wonderful insights about art and parenting and faith and money and selfishness and sanity, and salted with unusual dialogue and slightly off-key scenes and strange narrative colours.

There is one small section of the book where Kehlmann describes the life of the brother’s paternal grandfather, and then his father, and then his father, and then his father, and so on for about 20 generations (!), right back to feudal Europe, without no more than one paragraph given to each father. It does not drive the story forward one iota, but it was so off the wall that I imagined that Kehlmann had smoked a joint when he described the grandfather’s life, and just kept going backwards until it burnt his lip.

Weird. Magnetic. Different. Somewhat satisfying. Maybe even more than that.

Book review – Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem

Book review – Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem

Some many years ago we had a New York visitor from the literary world (who later won a Pulitzer Prize – long story). I asked her who was hot, who were the upcoming writers. Among a few others she pegged Jonathan Lethem, claiming that he would become the best writer in America. Now, with more than 18 fiction and non-fiction books under his belt, a slew of literary awards and a MacArthur ‘genius’ award, Lethem has lived up to that casual soothsay.

Dissident Gardens is my first Lethem novel. Someone smart said (I forget who, I am seaside-addled) that we should read half as many books, but we should read each one twice. I have only done that a only few times in my Life (Catch-22, My Traitor’s Heart, Ragtime, Portnoy’s Complaint). This novel absolutely demands a second reading.

At the heart of this story is family of mad and maddening Jews (before my co-religionists take offense to the phrase, they are described as such by the narrator with such affection that it borders on dazzled adulation). Communists, activists, hippies, geniuses, combatants. Failures as parents and guardians and friends. Deluded and impassioned and impractical and self-flagellating and guilt-ridden and wildly volatile, three generations of this family beat each other into misery and distress, save only for hope and unshakeable faith in themselves and their causes.

The book takes place mostly in New Jersey, close to New York. The matriarch is one Rose Zimmer, her story beginning in the 1930s, a character of such volume and heart and exasperation that she remained clanging in my head long after I had closed the book. Am American communist of boundless and cacophonous zeal, she chases off all who love her – her daughter Miriam, her husband (who flees for East Germany after the war to escape her harangues), her sisters, her communist co-conspirators. I cannot remember a character this robust in American literature for years, maybe decades – a sizzling delight (in a sort of perverse way – the reader shrieks with laughter at the many painful embers of her combustive personality).

Then there is her daughter Miriam, who eschews Communism for hippy activism –  no less infuriating than her nearly estranged mother, possessed of an explosive personality so magnetic and riveting and warped that I ached for her self-inflicted wounds and endless mistakes and doomed journey.

The cast of  many-dimensional characters in this book continues to grow shambolically and without shame – Rose’s hapless cousin looking for purpose and love finding only despair, the bickering communists of the 50s, a black academic sampling the bacchanalian homosexual candy store of pre-AIDS New York, an Irish folk singer whose career has been exterminated by the juggernaut of Dylan, an orphaned Jewish grandchild saved and nurtured by an isolationist Christian religious group, a senior black cop (a rarity in the 60s), submerged by his ailing wife and failing child and finding redemption in a cross racial and politically inadmissible love affair.

Race, child rearing, hippiedom, AIDS, homosexuality, academia, Quakerdom, Jewish secularism, Irish folk music, Nicaragua, East German revisionism, the entire sweep and tragedy of the American communist movement – this book just bursting with energies and histories whose strands tangle chaotically with each other in a great and kaleidoscopic narrative, and whose expression is found in some of the most startling language I have read in ages – where you are continually pole-axed by utterly unique pairings of adjectives and nouns and adverbs and verbs and phrases and sentences of rare and abiding beauty.

Lest I sound too slavish, there are criticisms. Sometimes that language is so, well, virtuosic, that you say – Oh, for god’s sake stop it, now you’re just showing off. Sometimes the ambition of the huge cast and the many sub-stories threaten to overwhelm the main narrative.

But even so.

Watch for the Pulitzers next year, my money is here.

And read it twice.

Book review – The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis

Book Review – The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis

I while ago I posted a little missive about having to shed books that had outbred our groaning bookshelves. I spoke about mercilessly wading in and excising entire ouvres. Then I got brutally flamed from some members of this site for having evicted, specifically, Justin Cartwright.

So in a fit of guilt I went onto the web and sought out Cartwright’s book-of-the-year, figuring that if I bought it and read it, I would, by some weird literary code, be redeemed. His choice was The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis (yes, I know, what kind of a weird person has a surname like this). I had never heard of the book, never heard of the author, and made the decision to go in blind – reading neither reviews or cover blurbs.

What an astonishing little book. Actually more akin to a play than a book. Only four main characters, with the bulk of the book taking place in constrained locations, with long, probing and emotional interactions and unravellings between various members of this foursome, all of them sharply sculpted and clearly differentiated voices. I do not want to spoil, and will admit that this sort of tight and taught and structure will appeal more to Chekov lovers than the lovers of action-driven books, or even the ‘big books’ of award-winning novelists (it turns out that Bezmozgis is a Latvian emigre to Canada, and has been all over the literary shortlists for 2 years, and whose books have been translated into a dozen languages).

So, with caution – a celebrated Israeli politician named Kotler, a Russian immigrant who had spent decades in the horrors of the Gulag in his attempt to get to Israel, is not playing ball with the sitting government, and standing on principle on the matter of settlements. So Mossad unmasks an affair he is having with younger woman, getting it it splashed on the front pages of national newspapers. Kotler and his mistress Leora leave his long term (and beloved) wife and children and scurry to his childhood Crimea to escape the scandal.

The story unfolds entirely in Yalta, Crimea where Kotler, by co-incidence, comes face to face with the man who denounced him to the KGB all those decades ago. This forms the core of the novel. An interesting sidebar – Kotler is described convincingly as a man of unshakable integrity and near godlike morality, even in the face of his affair and, jarringly, his support for the settlers and their settlements. This last bit of combustive material is never judged, and Israeli/Palestinian politics is not part of this story at all (except in the most peripheral way).

But what is profoundly present in the story is the history of the Jewish ‘refuseniks’ (those Jews who had had the temerity to try and immigrate to Israel from a deeply anti-semitic USSR in the 70s and 80s and were cruelly persecuted for the attempt). Kotler may be based on Natan Sharansky, a current right-wing Israeli politician who was once a global cause-celebre of the human-rights movement, who helped to extract him from KGB jails in Siberia in 1986 (all fictional facts about Kotler and his wife match Sharansky’s biography).

Above all, the book is about the nature of betrayal, its shifting shape in the face of memory and circumstance and the similarly nebulous definition of forgiveness. People without an interest in the late-20th century cruelties of incipient Russian anti-semitism may have little interest in the background narrative, but the foreground issues of divided loyalties, sin, repentance and redemption and their entangled complexities are marvelously drawn, particularly within a story as small as this.

Book Review – & Sons by David Gilbert

Book review – & Sons by David Gilbert

The first thing that announces this book is the cover, itself almost worth the price. It is an utterly arresting shot of New York, one of most photographed cities on earth, one who you would think has been well worn through pictures, but the image on the front cover is stunning – clean, crowded, gorgeous and coloured from a disturbingly unreal palette.

A great start to this book, even before the first line. It is a quintessentially New York novel, filled with wit and slashing satire and intellectual commentary and comedy and bursting with barely hidden literary references to great American literature. & Sons is destined to nestle with them.

The story is centred around an ageing, and possibly demented scion of American letters, one AN Dyer, hermited in his large and musty upper East side apartment. Dyer is a Salinger-type figure, with a dash of Roth and Bellow, who had, in his twenties, written a novel called Ampersand, a Catcher in the Rye-esque coming-of-age novel which has sold 45 million copies. He has written others, but it is Ampersand that defines him.

The book begins at the funeral of Dyer’s lifelong best friend, Charles Topping, at whose funeral we find ourselves at the opening of the book and whose life had been deeply marred by his friendship with the novelist. His son Phillip Topping is the novel’s narrator, and he is a deft trick, a wildly unreliable interlocutor, who narrates events at which he was absent, and conspires to understands the motives of those around him which he could not possibly understand. He is both despised by almost everyone in the Dyer family, his role in the story is at best, oblique. This is a huge risk for Gilbert to have taken and it plays off handsomely, as the reader continually grapples with the narrator’s perspective and veracity.

The elderly novelist is as towering a figure as I have read in a long while. Irascible, regretful, maudlin, suicidal, manipulative, brilliant, conniving and desperate for redemption, he conspires to summon his two sons from his first marriage to New York, his ex-wife, as well as another son, the provenance of whom becomes a key plot point. Dyer is seeking to apologise and be forgiven for his neglect and deceit before he dies, as well as to reveal the truth about his youngest son. His two older sons have built shaky and damaged lives from the rubble left by their father, and they gather in New York, as does their mother. Things, not unexpectedly, do not work out as planned.

The writing is at times breathtakingly beautiful, and often very funny. There are a number of explosively entertaining set pieces – a gathering of New York’s elite at an art gallery, a cocaine fueled night on the town, a movie pitch in Hollywood, a pretzel hunt in Central Park. Like Tom Wolfe before he, well, lost his touch.

& Sons had the misfortune to be published in the same year as The Goldfinch, or else it may have scooped the Pulitzer, and I think it got a little lost because of the Goldfinch brouhahah. Critics have quibbled with the last third of the book but I found it a great joy from beginning to end, and slipped it happily into my bookcase in the section marked ‘Contemporary American‘ alongside Roth, Updike, Heller, Ford, Franzen and Bellow.

To quote the Guardian critic James Lasdan – ‘this book is funny without being silly, serious without being solemn, and powerfully moving without being either sentimental or coercive’.

Book Review – The Dog by Joseph O’Neill

Book Review – The Dog by Joseph O’Neill

A few months ago The Guardian presented their ‘big fiction’ books – those that were eagerly anticipated and imminently hitting the stores. One of those was The Dog by Joseph O’Neill. When I told people I had bought it they waxed all misty and lyrical about Netherland, O’Neill’s award-winner from a few years ago, which I had not read. This included my wife Kate Sidley who wrote a mini-review on The Good Book Appreciation Society comparing The Dog to Netherland.

So O’Neill was virgin territory for me. Let me start by saying that there is one famous editor on this site ( Helen Moffett ?) who is very strict about every single line of the books she edits having to drive the narrative/story forward. Not only do the sentences in The Dog not move the story forward, there is no story to talk of. I suspect she would throw this book across the room with extreme prejudice, and then use it for kindling.

And then there are the 4-page unbroken paragraphs. And the embedded ramblings within parentheses, repeatedly nested so that some paragraphs end with )))))) (yes, SIX brackets). And really, really long sentences (I counted one at random – it was 150 words, where the average in novels is 10 – 15). And the extremely dense tangential thoughts on everything and anything. And all telling and no showing. And no plot (although I suppose there is a narrative of sorts, and an unexpected metamorphosis at the end)

Did I hate this book for all these reasons, and more (its landscape was even further littered with other skewered and bloodied novelistic/linguistic sacred cows)?

No, I fell hopelessly in love with it. Lawyer breaks up with long term partner in the US, takes a soulless job in soulless Dubai via an old college buddy from an impossibly rich family. He is put to work doing life-crushing tax and legal structuring for his friend’s family’s endless global empire . Our hapless protag rarely leaves his cold and rich apartment in one Dubai’s endless skyscrapers, except to go to a similarly soulless office. He hires and befriends Russian prostitutes. He ruminates on his failed relationship. He writes angry mental emails to his boss, which he never sends (a doff of the hat to Bellow’s Herzog). He puzzles and fantasises over the disappearance of a colleague. He endlessly rehashes his failed relationship. He masturbates to online porn. He ruminates some more. And then some more. Then he muses on his ruminations. Then he meta-muses to the point of circularity.

There are times when the narrative and ranting are so convoluted and labyrinthine and recursive that you want so whack O’Neill upside the head and ask – why are you doing this to me? And then you find yourself gasping with surprise, or spluttering with mirth (often) or dazzled by original thinking and insight. (Insight! Insight! Isn’ t that why we read books?). At one point he filibusters about Facebook – it is as breathtakingly funny and perceptive as anything you will ever read about our brave new digital world.

Geoff Dyer, a great writer who had a series of lectures here recently made known that his favorite sort of novel is a series of essays hung on the thinnest of plots. The Dog is exactly that – the plot so thin as to be invisible, the ‘essays’ are rich and gloriously funny and surprising and profound. This book was a strange journey indeed, but the scenery was startling and alien and satisfying.

Book Review – Amnesia by Peter Carey

Ah, where to start on this entangled, undisciplined, dissonant, amazing carnivore of a book? A ragged, shredded, broken-toothed affair, a story of Australia related by a melange of unpredictable and wounded characters with inarticulate and blasted dialogue embedded in even more unpredictable careening narratives, alternating first person, third person, shifting between reliable and unreliable narrators and different character’s perspectives, sometimes multiple times on a single page. The characters live shambolically within dysfunctional families, battling their own warped and broken personalities,  and amidst political conspiracies, real and imagined (what do you know of the coup of 1975? The Battle of Brisbane in 1942? The CIA spying facility near Alice Springs? Me too. I had to look them up).

If this introduction to Amnesia seems a little hallucinatory, it is because that is how it feels reading this wondrous and complex story, at least from time to time. It is partially about a unhappy and outspoken young girl, Gaby, unable to fully escape from her warring parents, who becomes a teenage political activist and eventually a hacker, unleashing global mischief on a truly grand scale. It is partially about a celebrated Australian journalist, now shamed and brought low for crimes only hinted at (making up news stories?) who is kidnapped and forced to write Gaby’s life story (Gaby and her hacktivists are fugitives). It is partially about the history of left wing politics in Australia. It is partially about the parts of Australia we never see – poverty and crime and alcoholism and messed up schoolkids and corporate malfeasance and US domestic interference and the convenient ententes of backroom politics.

The many characters in this book are huge, they come at the reader like a herd of elephants, trampling any expectations of subtlety and patient character development. They are in your face from the first page, and the reader’s empathies are treated with disdain – we like and dislike them in equal measure and at different times, a reasonable facsimile, I suppose, for  the real people in our lives. The story is deep and robust and complex –  at times claustrophobic, beautiful, shocking, even incomprehensible (I struggled to understand what was going for the first 75 pages) –  with Australian left wing politics and environmental activism and the weakness of men fueling 376 pages of dizzying construction.

Once I loved Peter Carey (twice Booker winner, and reigning monarch of Australian fiction, along with Tim Winton). Then I read some books I didn’t like and moved on to other authors. Now I am re-energised by him. A bit out of breath, perhaps, exhausted by this book, amazed by his language skills and acrobatic scaffolds. A great book? Not quite, but so different to anything I have read in a while that I must say – read this, with your literary crash helmets firmly secured. It is a wild journey on a bumpy road.

Book Review – Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford

Book Review – Let Me Be Frank With You – Richard Ford

This is fourth book in what was originally a completed trilogy by Ford – three iconic and truly great American novels over 15 years  – The Sportswriter, Independence Day and Lay of the Land, all tracking the small triumphs and failures of one unremarkable middle class American, Frank Bascombe.  All of these books, and particularly this one (which is more of a postcript than a novel), are mercifully free of and the artificial and synthetic straight jackets of plot, but are brimming with story (in extremis – plot is entirely eschewed, we are simply transported into Bascombe’s head, and we follow him around for a few days – hearing what he thinks, and seeing what he sees). The meandering approach to the novel is (contrary to expectations) liberating and thrilling, and in Ford’s hands full of pathos and gentle humour and profound insight.

There are 4 stories in this book, minimally overlapping, all taking place on the seashore in New Jersey in the days approaching Christmas 2012 in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The hurricane and its attendant devastation of property and lives colour all of the stories and is the driving metaphor behind many of the book’s more subtle themes – the end of things, ambition’s pointless energies, loves lost, lives unhinged by random events.

Bascombe is approaching seventy, his whole history within miles of his home.  His Parkinson’s afflicted ex-wife in an spectacularly well-appointed care facility waiting for the disease to claim her. A sometime friend (once rich and envied) dying in a nearby hospice bottled up with a secret whose shock value has been leached by age. A black stranger who arrives at Bascombe’s front door to tell him about her brutally truncated childhood in this house in which he now resides. His current wife counseling grief-stricken hurricane victims and Bascombe’s growing distance from both her and the entire outside world.

It is difficult for me to articulate the magic of this book, particularly in the light of the previous Bascombe novels (it is not necessary to read them to enjoy this one), but there are many places were I stopped to rethink a thought in Bascombe’s head. There are few other characters in the modern American literature who are so fully rendered, drawn with all the complexities of everyman as he, and we, get towards the end – our unnecessary fretting and tiny pleasures and overblown fears and fading memories and finally the peace we can make with ourselves after a lives lived with best intent but arbitrary consequence.