A first-time author's impressive lyric gift graces—but isn’t enough to save—this simultaneously underimagined and overplotted debut set in a mining village in occupied Poland during WWII..
The protagonist and viewpoint character is Gracian Sofka, a 15-year-old “star-gazer” who works day-shifts at the colliery, and risks his life during late-night observations of celestial phenomena (in which he senses “a kind of opening. A chance for escape”). His “viewing place” dangerously close to a German army base, Gracian is bluntly reproved by his older brother Pawel, an unemployable malcontent who sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t live with Gracian, their widowed mother, and their married sister’s family. There is of course a mystery in Pawel’s past, whose gradual resolution coincides with Gracian’s understanding that, in a time of poverty and peril, “the stars can wait.” Basu makes intermittently effective symbolic use of the telescope that Pawel (inexplicably) gives to his brother—a device that becomes an `eye” through which Gracian “sees” (or believes he sees) even past experiences otherwise unknown to him. The prose is hushed and rhythmic, featuring unusual usages (“sheen” as a verb, etc.) and images (such as the sight of shoes beside a bedroom chair, “both pointing a little sideward, as if soon to begin a journey of their own”). But Basu's first takes too long to develop a plot, then collapses into a series of stacked melodramatic climaxes, as Gracian wanders into immediate danger, draws gunfire, and precipitates several disasters concluded—as most readers will have anticipated —down in the mines.
So much here feels forced and improbable that it’s difficult to properly credit the delicacy with which the scenes have been shaped and rendered. Basu is a real stylist, but has yet to prove himself a novelist.