RICHARD BAUSCH’s last novel, Peace, was a major critical success, and years ago novelist Richard Ford championed him by writing the introduction to Bausch’s terrific book of short stories, Aren’t You Happy For Me?
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Happiness is an elusive commodity for the central characters of this finely written new novel, Before, During, After.
Natasha, who is in her 30s, is an intelligent woman working for a Washington senator and has just had an affair with a married photographer. She is successful, but there is an emotional drift and what worked for her in her life to this point is now losing traction.
Michael Faulk’s foothold in the world is also coming loose as he finds himself — or cannot find himself — on the brink of quitting the priesthood.
They meet, quickly fall in love, decide to marry and move to Memphis, where Natasha is from. That’s ‘Before’, a short part of the book. ‘During’ is also a short section, in which the key events occur. It’s impossible to write about the book without saying what happens.
Michael is in New York on 9/11. Natasha, on a holiday with a female friend in Jamaica, is terrified that Michael might have been killed in the Towers.
Everyone in the holiday resort seems to go on a major drinking bender as a shocked response to the events in New York and the Pentagon. Natasha drinks and smokes with a guy on the beach and she is raped.
Most of the book is ‘After’, whereby the newly married couple try to rekindle the beauty of the love they had previously. Crucially, Natasha does not want to speak about the rape.
Bausch writes with a steady hand as he keeps the events — the rape and 9/11 — running in parallel. Despite the fact that Michael was in New York for 9/11, he is oddly remote from the impact of it.
The detachment and even coldness are undermined by the fact that he is leaving the priesthood and is no longer responding to what is happening by ministering to those affected.
There is also a queasily uncomfortable feeling about how Natasha is dealing with what has happened to her. She hides the phenomenal emotional damage and confusion about the rape behind the terrorist attack.
Repeatedly, she tells concerned friends that she is only upset because she feared for some hours that Michael might have been killed in New York.
The plaiting of the two events sets up a peculiar moral matrix, through which this deeply imagined portrait of two people who love each other is framed. Deliberately schematic in its structure, and in the manner in which the moral issues are set out, it is never sentimental.
There are many times when the novel seems to be making the rape a metaphor for the terrorism or the terrorism a metaphor for the rape, but Bausch is too sophisticated a writer to play his fictional cards that glibly.
By the end, the reader has been given so much depth that it is possible to have real concern for how Natasha and Michael survive. The end — though not tricky or spectacular — is gripping. As the newly-weds newly at loggerheads pick their way across rocky ground, two elderly characters from the story assume some prominence.
Baines, the despicable, beady-eyed landlord who slyly peers into the couple’s crisis as he drools over a breakfast of cold lasagne, is the unreliable pillar at one side. At the other is Iris, Natasha’s grandmother, who raised her. She is a figure of kindness and wisdom.
Not at all cheery it does have a dignity to its pages, as Bausch writes with an unflinching grace.
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