- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 21, 2006

FORGETFULNESS

By Ward Just

Houghton Mifflin, $25, 272 pages

REVIEWED BY MURIEL DOBBIN

Despite its title, this is a book about memories. It is a rich dark tapestry woven around a death that sets the scene for remembrance of the past and an exploration of its pattern.

In the aftermath of the killing of his wife, artist Thomas Railles plunges into a reprise of his life and an assessment of those most important to him, from the reclusive Englishman who retreated from the world after witnessing the slaughter at the battle of the Somme in World War I, to the two American intelligence agents from his hometown for whom he has done “odd jobs” in espionage.

Mr. Just’s 15th novel is a testament to the imagination and experience that informed his earlier work. As memorable fiction should, it leaves the reader with questions to consider and much to think about. In his usual measured, terse prose style, Mr. Just has created an enigmatic group who tread a shadowy world with a mixture of candor and caution.

Delicately drawn and regrettably brief in presentation is the character of the English recluse, St. John Granger, “master of the silent stare, connoisseur of the oblique and puzzling remark, and all the time laughing inside, where it counts.”

It is Granger, the man “who cast no shadow on the earth,” whom Railles misses most as he struggles with his grief. Railles sees himself as the same “species of ghost” as Granger, although he prefers the more mundane term “displaced person.”

Ostensibly, Railles is a contented expatriate from a small town in Wisconsin who has married late and settled in a remote French village where he paints and plays billiards with Granger. He also receives regular visits from the two men with whom he grew up. Sons of the local doctor, the milkman and the baker, all three wound up in the drifting smoke of work for the Central Intelligence Agency.

It is his friends who suggest that the death of Railles’ wife Florette might be linked to his involvement in the “odd jobs” he had carried out for them in the past, what he thought of as “the small change of espionage.”

Railles accepts that his friends live in “a world where scores were always settled because the alternative was unbearable chaos … In a sense, score settling was what they did for a living … Florette would become a crime that demanded vengeance.”

And while Railles questions that Florette’s death was linked to terrorism, he is immersed enough in a life partly spent in the shadows to not reject the suspicion that his previous work might be a contributory factor. As Bernhard, the baker’s son who grew up to be a spy, puts it, “Coherence demanded that Florette die for Thomas’ sins.” Coherence, Railles notes, was Bernhard’s word for conspiracy.

Mr. Just weaves a plot both subtle and sinister as Railles finds himself drawn into the quest for justice in the slaying of a woman unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The question is why the men who at first rescued her on a mountain trail decided they must cut her throat instead of leaving her there to simply freeze to death. The plot hinges on the strength of its characters and the depth of Railles is matched in the portrayal of Antoine, a French policeman skilled in the grim art of interrogation.

The protracted scene in which the killers of Florette are beaten and questioned is riveting because of its restraint and what it leaves unsaid. It is Railles who draws a cold-blooded confession from the man who cut Florette’s throat, and it is also Railles who resists the temptation to kill him.

Yet it is Antoine who suggests that the decision not to kill reflected a “lack of civil conscience” on Railles’ part. Without defending the brutality of his work, the professional interrogator notes that it requires “the ideology of anger — a belief in the righteousness of your cause.”

Railles returns to America, despite his belief that it is “not the place for anyone who is troubled.” He wanders, with a sojourn in New York and a miserable visit to his hometown then winds up in Maine where he paints in peace until the past seeks out his beach and shatters his tranquillity.

Antoine, now retired from his work as an interrogator, reappears to confirm that Railles’ wife died because she had indeed become an inadvertent impediment to a terrorist execution. In a final irony, Antoine also tells him that her killers were released as a result of an espionage exchange agreement.

For Railles, it is a blow that destroys the newfound quietness of his life, leaving him with the haunting knowledge that his wife remains unavenged.

“Don’t think for one moment that the dead have no voice,” Railles tells the Frenchman. Then he goes home to listen to the nightly radio reports of casualties in Iraq, visualizing the devastating moment that came with the knock of notification on the door of the survivors. For himself, he counsels continued patience, waiting for “the light that arrives ages later, light even from a dead star.”

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun

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