Saturday 7 December 2019

Hauser debut finds clarity amid the noiseFRIEDA KLOTZ

Frieda Klotz

The Measures Between Us

Ethan Hauser

Bloomsbury, €18.60

the Measures Between Us opens with an entrancing scene, a young couple at a fairground after dark, who are invited to play cards with the fairground attendants. After listening to stories, smoking weed and dancing together in the attendants' ramshackle trailer, they return to their car, where they proceed to steam up the windows with passion. It's a compelling flourish from the author, and an unforgettable introduction to Cynthia and Jack, whose stories continue to intertwine until the novel's end.

This is a novel about relationships – how they are forged, why they last and how they develop and change over lifetimes. It's also about self-doubt, betrayal and the shifting power dynamics that affect people who have committed themselves to one another. We are presented with three couples of different ages and invited to compare them. Mary and Vincent are the oldest, happily married but desperately worried about their daughter Cynthia, who is battling depression; Lucinda and Henry are just about to have their first child, and their relationship, though initially strong, appears less solid as time goes by; Cynthia and Jack are just starting out, barely in a real relationship, and their presence is the most tenuous and fragile in the tale.

There's something about the fairground opening that feels uniquely America – perhaps the fact that the young folk have the money and the freedom to drive about in their own car. The novel evokes the suburban America of the movies, replete with adolescent angst, baseball games, and a sense of impenetrable safety that's just one step away from trauma. It's an America where new beginnings are always possible, where a woman may leave a good marriage just because she wants to. This may be a little less confident than the US we knew before the financial crisis – characters worry about health insurance and job security – but it's still heavy with implicit optimism; which is of course the very thing that events go on to undermine.

The city of Boston and its small suburb, Newton, are the backdrop to the characters' various struggles. It's at the Boston marathon that Henry is given an opportunity to muddy his marriage vows, when he bumps into an exceptionally beautiful young woman (and a student of his) who suggests that they go for a coffee. The author, Ethan Hauser, could not have predicted that the Boston marathon would by his book's publication have become a non-fictional tragedy. Instead, his gives his novel topicality through the arrival of a rainstorm more prolonged and violent than any that had occurred before, hinting at climate change.

The novel's strength lies in Hauser's ability to get inside his characters' heads and unfurl the complexity of their thoughts and observations. Vincent, a woodwork teacher, has an interview with the school principal in which it becomes apparent that his job is at risk. Summoned to his boss's office, he makes a mild joke. "The principal laughed heartily, more than the joke merited," Hauser writes. "It was at that moment that Vincent realised he was about to deliver bad news. Poker players, they say, have a tell, a gesture or a tic that indicates when they are bluffing. The best players train their bodies to collude with their lies, to not reveal they are holding nothing. They can sit there with not even a pair, and their heart rates and breathing will be exactly the same as if they were staring at four aces. Most people, though, can't control it. Honesty bubbles up in them." The principal, however, is neither a benevolent figure nor a bad guy. The meeting ends awkwardly and we are told, as part of Vincent's train of thought, that the principal probably, "simply hated, like most people, delivering bad news".

It's hard to believe that The Measures Between Us is Ethan Hauser's first novel. Hauser, an editor at The New York Times, has published shorter fiction in Esquire and Playboy (which may account for the accomplishment of this book's more erotic moments). It is an exceptional debut – a tightly structured and enjoyable work of rare flair and subtlety.

The end may be a little too sombre for some tastes and certain sections move too slowly. As is often the case when multiple stories are interwoven, some end up being much more interesting than others. But the pleasure of the book is in the measured distilling of these lives, and in the process of the telling rather than a dramatic finale. It won't give away too much to quote the last line reflecting on a key decision made by one character, which gives a flavour of Hauser's graceful style. "What she had heard was the faint, faraway sound of clarity, what it costs to stay, here, amid all the noise of longing."

Sunday Independent

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