Booker- and Whitbread-shortlisted Miller (Oxygen, 2002, etc.) follows the shell-shocked wanderings of a British photographer haunted by an African massacre.
Clem Glass has returned to London, not even daring to develop the negatives of the photos he snapped at the church in N—, where hundreds of men, women, and children were hacked to pieces on the orders of a man named Sylvestre Ruzinanda. (An Author’s Note acknowledges the incident is based on an actual one in Rwanda.) He’s drinking heavily, going to mindless movies, afraid to be alone with his thoughts when his father phones to say that Clem’s older sister, Clare, has had a nervous breakdown, similar to one she suffered 25 years ago as a college student. There’s some mysterious distance between Clare and their father, who’s retreated to a monastery since the death of his wife, a politically active socialist lawyer. At first Clem can’t deal with her either, but he finally takes Clare from the sanitarium to a Somerset cottage they vacationed in as children. She begins tentatively to improve, even as sensitively rendered interactions with the siblings’ cousins and aunt (it’s her cottage) suggest that no one in their extended family is without emotional wounds. Clem remains obsessed with the massacre at N—, particularly after reading the written account handed him by his fellow eyewitness, journalist Frank Silverman. When he learns that Ruzinanda has surfaced in Brussels, Clem hops the next plane for the book’s curiously irresolute climactic section, in which he confronts the killer and is challenged by a young woman (related in some way to Ruzinanda) who reminds him of Europeans’ genocidal activities in Africa. As in his previous three outings, Miller subtly limns the characters’ anxieties and anomie, creating a palpable atmosphere of tension and moral dread. But we long for a finale more definitive than a nearly irrelevant wedding and Clem’s bizarre confession to a crime that never occurred.
Beautifully written, astutely observed, and as maddeningly inconclusive as life itself. Miller remains a gifted, thoughtful writer in search of stronger plot lines.