Minimalist tale of a former violinist turned epitaph scribe, and his daughter.
More accessible than his last (The Way Through Doors, 2009), Ball’s third novel at least makes his characters’ predicament plain from the outset. A dystopian unnamed country and city are the setting. In this post-revolutionary state, systematic purges and bloodbaths have given way to everyday ambiguous incidents of what could be state-sponsored persecution or random street violence. It’s hard to tell, because the police have all become secret police—even their stations are undercover—and government agents are in disguise, principally from each other. William, who was once a virtuoso violinist before the symphonies were disbanded and music itself banned, now works writing epitaphs—quirky ones for people whose sole creative outlet these days is imagining what should be inscribed on their own or others’ tombstones. William’s 9-year-old daughter Molly is mute but gifted with a prodigious imagination. He has raised her ever since his wife Louisa was “disappeared” by the government years before. William and Molly lead a colorless but relatively placid existence, carefully avoiding drawing attention to themselves, especially by going out after evening curfew, when citizens not at home are deemed to be up to no good—whatever “good” is. However, a former friend recognizes him on the street and draws William back into a group of wine-drinking insurgents, with a promise of revelations about what really happened to Louisa. In a risky move, William leaves Molly with elderly neighbors and steals away to a subversive nighttime gathering, where he receives a precious contraband violin as well as a dossier on Louisa. As the night proceeds, Molly and the neighbors enact an elaborate puppet show, which elucidates her parents’ visionary legacy and provides her with a map of her future after the inevitable happens. In Ball’s delicately etched nightmare, there’s still room in the regime for ordinary comforts like pea soup—trouble is, the spoons are too small.