Booker nominee Seiffert’s third novel (Field Study, 2004, etc.) is spare, sometimes powerful…and a bit disappointing.
Brits Alice and Joseph (a nurse and a plasterer, respectively) fall in something like love, but both bring along baggage and great reticence, and the relationship flounders. Alice’s father, absent all her life, has lately let wither the correspondence she began as a belated, indirect way of getting to know him; her beloved grandmother has died, and she’s tending to her grieving grandfather. Joseph has a troubled past. After a string of youthful petty crimes, he became a soldier in Northern Ireland—and what happened there he refuses to reveal. His experiences have left him scarred and skittish. He warily circles Alice: engaging for a while, retreating, engaging, retreating. When Alice’s grandfather, for whom Joseph is doing some home renovation, divulges details of his military career in Kenya—details that he, also laconic and guilt-ridden, has long kept to himself—Joseph shrinks from the revelation with a raw, impulsive violence that estranges him from Alice for good. Seiffert’s setup is daringly low-key: minimal plot; an aggressively plain, fragmentary style; two protagonists defined in large part by their awkwardness and taciturnity. Seiffert’s prose is subtle and precise, and in psychological complexity she rivals Margot Livesey. Despite some similarities of approach, however, this book doesn’t offer the layered suspense of Livesey’s work. In this novel about ships passing sadly in the night, the middle passage of 200 pages is impressive, but the beginning and the end of the journey are not.
A partial misfire by a gifted writer.