- - Thursday, August 11, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THIS MUST BE THE PLACE

By Maggie O’Farrell

Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95, 400 pages

We’ve all said, “This must be the place,” after being frustrated by the hassles of finding our way somewhere. Perhaps the directions have been poor, or the map less than useful. And with all the effort expended, it’s still not entirely certain that this really is the place: It’s more that other possibilities have been excluded.

Such chiffony wisps of doubt, trailed in the very title of Maggie O’Farrell’s sixth novel, drift through its 28 chapters. Their settings range in place from Donegal in Ireland to Chengdu in China, and in time from 1944 to 2016. At their center is Daniel Sullivan, a linguistics professor from New York, who has established himself in Ireland with Claudette, an Oscar-winning film star. Some chapters are told from his point of view, some from hers, and most of the others from the points of view of their children or other family members.

The multiple viewpoints, like the multiple locations and times, shimmer with suggestions and intimations, so that the novel has a pointillist effect, like a painting made of discrete dabs of color. From a distance the viewer’s eye connects them into an image. From close up the color splotches are separate, with gaps that the eye slides over, making connections between them or inventing details to fill them up. In either case, the pointillist method, whether in painting or analogously in literature, demands audience participation.

The reader’s immediate engagement is in what has brought Daniel and Claudette to a hard-to-find house, up a hill, through 12 farm gates, in the far west of Ireland. The answer is that Claudette spirited herself out of the celebrity limelight by taking her son Ari and rowing away from the sailboat on which she was vacationing with her partner’s family. She’d already bought the Irish house in her brother’s name, and since living there, has managed to disappear as far as the public is concerned. It’s as if she had died. Indeed, one whole chapter is the fictional auction catalogue of her memorabilia. Daniel met her when he stopped to help with a broken car. He, too, needs to escape. He is outrunning a bad divorce in which he has lost access to his children. His history is even more shadowed when he hears of the death of a former lover he had abandoned when she aborted their child. The consequences of these relationships haunt Daniel and his partnership with Claudette.

The structure of “This Must be the Place” means that the story of Daniel’s and Claudette’s life unfolds slowly, in chapter-size bits and pieces. These are not arranged chronologically. Often the narrative stream is diverted as new characters or seemingly unrelated events are introduced. Many have the elegance or sharp focus of a short story, and they all have titles like short stories. One chapter describes the experience of Daniel’s son Niall, who suffers from severe eczema that is relieved only once a week when he goes for treatment. Late in the novel there’s a chapter recounting the experience of a completely new character, Rosalind, who has lived her married life in South America, and childless herself, has just discovered that her husband fathered a child with another partner.

The brilliance of Maggie O’ Farrell’s description of Bolivian salt flats, and the reappearance of Niall in this late scene, makes it an especially rich chapter. And it’s not just the author’s sense of place that is extraordinary, but also her sense of period in such vignettes as Daniel’s childhood in Brooklyn, the evocation of his mother’s life in the 1940s, the description of 20-something guests at the 1980s wedding in a Scottish hotel. In a sense, it could be said that the parts of the novel — its chapters — are more than the sum of the whole because had the narrative plodded chronologically along the road to an ending, its sense of life would be less vibrant; the reader would have been less engaged.

Maggie O’Farrell’s writing is stylish and assured. This is a novel of parents and children, of lovers and their disagreements, of the things people say and what they mean, of people dealing with the hands that fate has dealt them. It is full of astute psychological insights, and equally hard-eyed but sympathetic renderings of love and pain and just plain oddity. This is an engrossing novel to occupy summer down time and stir thought over autumn months: a work of substance from a writer of impressive, perhaps masterly, skills.

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

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