Through one day in a yearslong extramarital affair, an Irish writer looks at intimacy and estrangement in an impressive work.
For more than 20 years, Michael and Caitlin have been meeting on the first Tuesday of every month and sharing a few hours in a cheap hotel in the run-down New York City beach community of Coney Island. On the winter day that dominates the story, he is 48 and she’s about 44. They first appear walking through bitter cold and wind. The book’s third sentence reads: “This is bleakness without respite.” O’Callaghan (The Dead House, 2018, etc.) also opens with some of the book’s most impressive writing, fistfuls of muscular prose that channels Seamus Heaney: “the enormous sprawl of ocean that, in close, bucks and moils. Frothing needlepoint flecks mottle a surface dull as lead, great furred bilges of surf break hard against the shoreline.” It’s almost showy, maybe forced—“needlepoint”? The prose settles down while remaining exceptional, elegiac and eloquent, in conveying insight and sympathy for the small cast’s two main players as they face an uncertain future. Michael and his wife, Barbara, grew apart when their firstborn died after 14 weeks in ICU, and Barbara has recently been diagnosed with cancer. Caitlin and her husband have come to accept the distance between them, and she knows he has had affairs. Recently he’s been offered a promotion and transfer to Peoria, Illinois. It’s clear that “bleakness without respite” doesn’t apply just to Coney Island in winter. Hard choices loom. Though age and guilt have colored their precious Tuesdays, the lovers still treasure them, but as the hours pass, they wonder if the moment has come for a long-avoided decision.
O’Callaghan anatomizes these emotional and psychological odysseys, making a narrative light on incident compellingly readable.