Wartime violence prompts a handful of lives to intersect deeply in Van Booy’s fourth work of fiction (The Secret Lives of People in Love, 2010, etc.).
Unlike the author’s previous works, this novel doesn't emphasize romance, but the author retains an abiding interest in interconnectedness, and his tone remains poetic and optimistic. The story opens in 2010 as Martin, an employee at a retirement home, awaits a Mr. Hugo, who dies upon his arrival. From there, the story branches out, with chapters dedicated to Hugo, who obscured his Nazi past to become a successful filmmaker in England; John, a U.S. World War II bomber pilot who crashes in France in 1944; his blind granddaughter, Amelia, who works at the Museum of Modern Art in the present day; and more. Van Booy’s intention is to show how fleeting moments of generosity can have an impact decades after the fact, and the pay-it-forward philosophy produces some sentimental lines. (“Sébastien is not looking through the window, but through the scrapbook of things that have pierced his heart.”) Even so, Van Booy is skilled at crafting characters in a few strokes, and both John and Hugo are so well-drawn that their intersection becomes appealing and affecting. And the shifts back and forth in time give the story a tension that, once the fullness of the men’s wartime ordeals is revealed, gives his redemption depth. If it seems too on the nose that Amelia helps create an exhibit of American photos lost in Europe during World War II called “The Illusion of Separateness,” the overall sense is that Van Booy is foregrounding a we’re-all-in-this-together theme that many novelists needlessly obscure.
This gentle book feels like a retort: Why not just say how much we owe each other? And so Van Booy does.