Shadows revealed by X-ray machines and generated by the gathering momentum of World War I darken and enrich the texture of Barrett’s demanding, rewarding sixth novel (Servants of the Map, 2002, etc.).
Featuring descendants of characters in her earlier books, it’s a crowded group portrait filled by the patients, staff and outside “help” brought together in 1916 at a tuberculosis sanatorium (Tamarack State) in the Adirondacks of upstate New York. Narrated by the patients (identified only as “we”), it describes the facility and its operation, gradually narrowing focus to concentrate on recent Polish-German immigrant Leo Marburg (whose peregrinations have prevented him from completing an education in chemistry), his fellow patient and eventual antagonist, wealthy cement-plant owner Miles Fairchild (who resides in a comfortable “cure house” outside Tamarack State), as well as the three women who touch, and alter, both men’s lives. This trio includes X-ray technician Irene (a victim of the new science she has mastered), who welcomes Leo as a promising kindred spirit; teenaged Naomi (who becomes Miles’s driver, but not the sweetheart he yearns for); and “ward maid” Eudora, who arouses in Leo the passions Naomi (who loves him, and not Miles) cannot arouse. Mounting evidence that the United States will enter the European war (very skillfully layered in) heightens tensions, as do the presence of a tin box entrusted to Leo’s care, a fire of suspicious origins and Miles’s patriotic fervor, which turns weekly discussion groups he has organized into a proving ground for one’s loyalty. This richly detailed, highly intelligent novel is too slowly paced to elicit reader interest early on, but it builds and persuades most impressively, creating a compelling picture of how “together, without noticing exactly what was happening, we’d contributed to destroying our own world.”
A marvel of intelligent design, and a truly original cautionary tale, from one of the most interesting and unconventional of all contemporary American writers.