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The title of this novel keeps in play the twin meanings of the verb: “wanting”can mean both “desiring” and “lacking.” Mr. Flanagan’s meditation on its ramifications, his careful weaving of history and fiction, and his hard gaze at human behavior makes clear that want is central to human life. His book is stark and affecting, and probably hard to forget.

Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.