A Lithuanian immigrant who can see the fates of other people written on their skin pursues her mysterious connection to a young man and his father.
For Magdalena, other people pose an unusual problem. Their skin holds history—intimate details of their past and present, but “Magdalena’s skin [has] nothing to say about anything.” After the loss of a dear friend, Magdalena begins to think of her strange gift as a curse. She decides to stop using her glasses—the better to avoid discovering the futures of others. When she’s thrown together with Neil, an American studying abroad, Magdalena discovers her own name written “just above his cheekbone.” As this quiet debut leads readers from the streets of London and Paris to the Spanish seaside, Saunders weaves the perspectives of Magdalena and Neil together with Richard, Neil’s father, on the hunt for lost details about his mother, who abandoned him at birth. Soon all three characters are connected by a web of coincidence and chance meetings, which grows in significance as the novel winds to its conclusion. Richly detailed and highly observant, Saunders’ debut takes its time revealing how the lives of a famous novelist, a disgraced English teacher, an aspiring historian, and a haunted young woman intersect. What at first seem like throwaway narrative embellishments—like Neil’s scholarly obsession with the record of a 13th-century Roman pilgrim—soon come into relief. Saunders transforms what could be a simple tale of fate and coincidence into a compelling meditation on the horrors of the Holocaust, the difficulties of forgiveness, and the complications of memory.
Fans of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife will love Saunders’ debut, which takes up the mantle of myth, history, and storytelling with beautiful, sure-footed prose.