Complex personal and family histories are painstakingly disentangled in this elliptical yet engrossing novel from the Massachusetts-based author of Ambassador of the Dead (2001, etc.).
The narrator, James Pak, a young civil servant and historian, branches out from his job with the U.S. Counsel of Public Affairs in Vienna when he “investigates” the suicide of his troubled father, Andrew, 16 years earlier. Andrew’s roots in the Ukraine are traced during a succession of journeys and meetings, undertaken by James as he visits Andrew’s childhood friend, Marian, in England, then moves eastward to track down his aged paternal grandmother, Vera, her world-weary, cynical son, Kij, and, eventually, another scion of Vera’s blighted family, who knows what removed the deracinated Andrew from the orbit of those who should have loved and protected him. Personal testimony and flashbacks commingle bafflingly, as James approaches, recoils from and submits to agonizing realizations hitherto unforeseen. “The only peace of mind I’ve ever known has come from the process of giving a shape to the past,” he tells himself. But the shape is that of a nightmare, as evidenced during a tense transcontinental train journey, a submissive vigil at the moribund Vera’s bedside and the reception of a horrific “message” sent to the chastened Kij, from whom James learns the secret (the first of many) concealed in the novel’s title. There’s more embedded in three objects James “inherits”: a letter written in an unknown language, Andrew’s military papers and an oversized glass jar (it’s Pandora’s box, James discovers). In its brooding focus on the breakup of a corrupt old world infecting the one that succeeds it, Melnyczuk’s hallucinatory tale achieves some of the fierce, distracting power of D.H. Lawrence’s nerve-grating masterpiece Women in Love.
Not an easy book to grapple with, but the reader’s struggle will yield rewards.