British writer Constantine, long unfamiliar to North American readers, seems ready for discovery with this lyrical novel.
While ill, Eric tells a rhapsodic story of his past—one unknown to his wife, Katrin, and one unfinished when he dies. Interest piqued, Katrin consults Eric’s oldest friend, Daniel, and also plunges into letters and diaries and other ephemera, uncovering her dead husband’s relationship, long before she knew him, with a French artist named Monique. Soon, Katrin is writing Eric and Monique’s story and cannot get it out of her head. Last year’s In Another Country demonstrated Constantine’s incisiveness and lyricism, especially in the title story, which also concerns a wife discovering details about her husband’s past love life. That story, compressed and lithe, pulverized. Here, though, Constantine wallows, and one grows a little tired as he delves into a predictable pattern in the book’s first half: Katrin’s visits to a doctor, late-night ruminations, a visit with Daniel, repeat. Be patient, though: the second half is stronger, and the novel does build to a satisfying and honest conclusion. But a larger problem here is the language, which, while pretty, often feels ponderous; Constantine knows he can write an ornate sentence, and he overdoses on them. As a result, the reader always feels one step ahead of Katrin’s emotional discoveries, the author hovering over his protagonist instead of trudging alongside her; sentences like “She bethought herself of her role” or “Life continued, it insisted, it bore you along through the motions of living” prove a little distancing. You may like those sentences—this is, of course a matter of taste—but when, of Katrin’s own work, Constantine writes, “she takes a writerly pleasure in its clarity, its matter-of-fact tone,” it’s hard not to wonder whether Constantine might have benefited from something similar.
A flawed but nevertheless haunting (and haunted) novel.