The rest of the book probes the dark aftermath of divorce from different angles—including a tooth extraction as an extended metaphor, intelligent analyses of several Greek myths, a disturbing account of a vacation gone wrong, and a story about a divorce from the point of view of an au pair—but although Cusk could not write poorly nor think sloppily if she tried, none of these disparate chapters is as finely formed as the bitter and beautiful opening.
Bailey’s elegant novel is a surprisingly comforting rendition of a life at its closing. As Harry Chapman lies in an open hospital ward, suffering from mysterious stomach pain and drifting in and out of consciousness, he’s visited not only by ghosts from his past, such as his acid-tongued mother and her eternally cheery sister, but also by the literary characters—Bartleby and Pip, for instance—who’ve peopled his life as a rare scholarly student in a tough south London school, a young actor, and a prize-winning novelist. Bailey draws these frequent (and in many cases superficial) literary allusions with a heavy, pedantic hand. Those who recognize them—and that will surely be the majority of readers interested in such a novel—will find them clunky, and those who do not will remain unenlightened. Still, Bailey, whose past novels include Peter Smart’s Confessions and Gabriel’s Lament, skillfully weaves a tapestry of light and shadow, pain and delight, refined and sordid pleasures, minor and major losses, and he shifts with impressive grace between the dream and solid worlds.
T. C. Boyle
Boyle returns to the desolate Channel Islands—the setting of his previous novel, When the Killing’s Done—this time to focus on San Miguel, the westernmost of these bits of land off the coast of Santa Barbara. Boyle’s prose is generally so dramatically charged that it pushes his characters and plots to the edge of unreality—or at least it heightens reality—but here, although his sentences are vivid and vigorous, and his observations are, as always, uncannily precise, the reader is aware not so much of the writer as of the three stalwart women whose rich stories he tells. Boyle draws his characters from life—a mother and daughter who lived briefly on the island in the late 19th century, and an unrelated woman who lived there during the Depression and into the Second World War. Of course, their personal situations determine their experiences—for one the place is a misery, for another a trap, and for the third mostly an idyll—and the island itself, by turns wind-battered, fog-drenched, and sun-soaked, easily encompasses them all.