A man’s anguish over his wife’s murder—soon to be a major motion picture—blurs his grasp of reality in the latest moody, Halifax-set tale by Norman (What Is Left the Daughter, 2010; Devotion, 2007, etc.).
Sam Lattimore, the narrator of Norman’s eighth novel, is in mourning: As the story opens, it’s been almost a year and a half since his wife, Elizabeth, was killed by a bellman at the Halifax hotel where they lived. And while he has sensibly taken on a therapist to work through his grief, he less-than-sensibly insists that he often sees Elizabeth on a beach at night, putting piles of books in order. Sam grudgingly sold the rights to the tragedy to a director, but the filming is doing little to help him achieve closure, a word he can’t stand anyway. In brief, episodic chapters, Norman shuttles between Sam’s present-day processing and his memories of life with Elizabeth, particularly her obsession with the British author Marghanita Laski (1915-1988) and the increasingly unwelcome and threatening advances she endured by the bellman. The quirky, downbeat milieu is typical of Norman’s fiction, which balances an obsession with specific details about time and place with more high-flown musings on morality and love. Here, Norman is chiefly concerned with the subjectivity of history, which he explores in terms of Sam's remembrances of Elizabeth, his unshakable visions of her and the filmmaker’s rewriting of their lives. This high-concept stuff sometimes works at a low boil: Much of Sam’s narration comes in the context of his therapist appointments, which makes the reality-versus-fantasy debate feel too neatly framed, more discussed than described. But while that dampens the impact of Sam’s emotional unraveling, it’s a beguiling tale overall, a novel Paul Auster might write after a trip to Canada’s Eastern shore.
Not Norman’s finest work but an intriguing attempt to complicate his usual concerns.