Compelling examination of the human experience
Edel Coffey on the new novel from a great but little known US writer
American writer Richard Bausch may be an unfamiliar name to Irish readers but it's a mystery why he is not better known here. I first came across Bausch with his last novel, Peace, published in 2008. It told the epic story of a young man in World War II in a very concise and masterful way. Bausch's latest, his twelfth, Before, During, After, is a world away from this, but thankfully only in content - the quality remains the same.
The book opens with thirty-something Natasha Barrett, an aide to a Senator in Washington who is recovering from the humiliation of a long-term affair that ended badly when the man in question decided to stay with his wife. Heartbroken and shamed, Natasha meets an older man in his late 40s at a dinner party in Washington. This is Michael Faulk, a divorced Episcopalian priest who is struggling with his own difficulties. His ex-wife is getting married the following day and he is struggling with his vocation as a priest.
We get an early insight into both characters through these storylines. Natasha is emotionally disconnected and was deluded about where her affair was leading. Likewise, Michael has been deluding himself in different ways about his faith.
The pair hit it off in a quiet, believable way as their respective gloomy states of solitude find solace and companionship in the other. They spend a magical week together, by the end of which time they have resolved to marry in the autumn, and move to Memphis, Natasha's hometown.
On the eve of the move and the wedding, however, two momentous things happen. One is the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the other is a rape. These two events make up the before and during of the story. Michael is in New York on the morning of the attacks, while Natasha is taking a pre-wedding holiday in Jamaica. When the pair reunite, we get the difficult 'after' segment of the book's title, as the pair find themselves alienated from each other by their separate experiences.
The title very cleverly stands on an individual basis and a grander scale. We all have 'before', 'during' and 'after' periods in our lives, times we can look back on and think of as halcyon days. Likewise, everyone of a certain age remembers exactly where they were on the day the second plane hit the Twin Towers in 2001.
Bausch writes skilfully not only about relationships, but about family too, and two of the most enjoyable characters on the periphery of the book are Natasha's grandmother Iris, who took over her care when her parents were killed in an accident, and Michael's aunt Clara.
It's testament to Bausch's skill that he has managed to take what is on paper a very ordinary plot and turn it into the most compelling examination of the human experience, love, loneliness and the need for companionship, as well as the ability of emotional and physical trauma to devastate lives.
Before, During, After
Atlantic Books, pbk, 345pp, £14.99
Available with free P&P on kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350