The author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Tinkers (2009) returns with another striking study of family, time and mortality.
This time, though, Harding’s style is less knotty, almost Hemingway-esque, at least in its opening pages. That’s in part due to the fact that he has a clearer story to tell: This book covers a year in the life of Charlie Crosby (a descendant of the clan introduced in Tinkers) as he mourns the death of his 13-year-old daughter in an accident. After smashing his hand against a wall in a rage, he loses his wife and develops a slow-growing addiction to painkillers and alcohol that leads him to break-ins and other foolhardy decisions. But Harding is less concerned with plot as with what’s swimming in Charlie’s head, and themes of nature and time abound. His narration shifts from past to present, from memories of his daughter to his nature walks in New England to his helping his father repair a clock in a home that has an orrery—a model of the solar system that symbolizes the symphonic breadth of nature and the universality of his struggle. Harding’s work owes much to his former teacher Marilynne Robinson, with whom he shares an affinity for precise, religious-tinged prose. The penultimate chapters of the book, however, display a unique hallucinatory style: As Charlie’s grief reaches its apex, he’s consumed by dark visions, and Harding’s skillful whipsawing of the reader from the surreal to the quotidian is the best writing he’s done. Though the final pages bend the story safely back to a familiar redemption arc, Charlie’s experience doesn’t feel commonplace. His trip to hell and back envisions a different kind of hell, and his status as “back,” just as in the real world, isn’t guaranteed.
Beautifully turned: Harding has defogged his style a bit and gained a stronger emotional impact from it.