In a novel that's part love story, part urban thriller, Phillips (And Yet They Were Happy, 2011, etc.) captures the way an isolating job and an indifferent city can stealthily steal our lives and erode our souls—and the protective, nourishing power of love.
A nameless, genderless, nearly faceless boss with rank breath; a tiny office in a vast windowless building, its “pinkish ill-colored” walls fluorescently lit, marked with “scratches, smears, shadowy fingerprints, the echoes of hands” of bureaucrats past, and impervious to efforts at beautification; the incessant, maddening drone of typing; the red-eyed co-workers of uncertain trustworthiness; the computer database into which numbers on pages in piles of files must be entered and double-checked and processed just so—these are the things Josephine Anne Newbury encounters in the administrative job she accepts, asking few questions and getting fewer answers, for a mysterious organization. Having up and moved to the city from the “hinterland” looking for new opportunities, Josephine and her beloved husband, Joseph, endure mindless work following a long period of unemployment and the added alienation of living in unwelcoming apartments, surrounded by other people’s belongings. They find solace, joy, and vitality in each other, in the linguistic playfulness that has become their own language, in the warm glow of simple meals enjoyed together by candlelight, and in their shared dream of starting a family. But the city to which they have moved “in hope of hope” sweeps them into its sinister clutches and brings them face to face with pressing existential questions to which the answers may be as inevitable and unpleasant as they are unclear. Phillips takes situations and sentiments that will be all too familiar to many readers—a soul-crushingly dull job that callously steals our youth and beauty, the desperate yearning to be free of it, the restoring power of love and food and intimacy and of shared language and laughter—and uses them to explore bigger universal themes of life and death and the choices and compromises they demand.
Intense and enigmatic, tense and tender, this novel offers no easy answers—its deeper meanings may mystify—but it grabs you up, propels you along, and leaves you gasping, grasping, and ready to read it again.