This novel is a double stranded narrative that alternates between the summer of 1972 when Byron Hemmings is 11, his best friend James Lowe has a crush on Byron's lovely, delicate mother Diana, and Diana herself is carefully leading the perfect life and maintaining the appearances that her husband, who visits only on weekends, demands and the current day when a middle aged man named Jim, who suffers from mental illness and stuttering, has been released from a closing inpatient psychiatric care facility to try and make his way in the larger world. As the novel moves back and forth between the stories, the ways in which they are connected is not immediately obvious but they do eventually come together in a crescendo movement.
11 year old Byron is a thoughtful child just outside the cusp of any real understanding of the pressures of adult life. His best friend, James, who Byron admires greatly, is a detailed planner, coming up with plans of action that Byron is happy to follow. He tells Byron that scientists are going to add two seconds to the year to adjust for the earth's movement. And while James finds this an interesting but rather forgettable fact, Byron is obsessed by the wrongness of such an action, trying to stay vigilant to see the addition of the seconds. On a foggy summer morning when Diana and the children are running late to school, Byron knows he sees the hands of his watch move to add the seconds just as he witnesses something, a terrible something, that no one else sees, something that alters his world and his perception of that world forever. When he finally reveals what he saw to his mother and to his friend James, he sets in motion a series of actions that build the summer of 1972 to an unavoidable climax.
Forty years on, Jim is just trying to live his daily life, indulging in the obsessive compulsive rituals he is driven to perform and holding down a job wiping tables in the supermarket café. He is isolated and unconnected from his co-workers and he has no friends or family. He is completely adrift and living on the edge in a broken down camper van. He is uncertain of how to interact with others, having been in and out of care since he was sixteen years old, having endured many rounds of electroshock therapy, and finding the world a scary and occasionally hostile place. But when he is accidentally hit by a car driven by a former co-worker, amazingly enough, he starts to connect to others and to learn that intervening on behalf of others is not always the wrong thing to do; sometimes it is the right thing, no matter the outcome.
There is a noticeable rising tension and menace as the story progresses through Byron's summer and a pitiable sadness in Jim's story. Although it looks from the outside as if the Hemmings' life is perfect and enviable, it is in actual fact fragile and easily shattered and Byron scrambles all summer trying to repair the broken pieces, even as things come apart faster and faster through the course of his and James' determined plan to save Diana from the snowballing repercussions of her unnoticed action that misty morning. The adult Jim, on the other hand, is clearly broken, far from perfect, a casualty of a past he can't and won't discuss. Both stories move towards their resolutions and knit together, finally revealing what the reader has begun to suspect and playing with perception and what we see on the surface as versus what lies beneath in the very soul of people.
The writing here is well done and powerful. Initially the great difference between the two story lines makes the novel read as two unconnected tales, making it a little hard to settle into the book but in the end it is clear why Joyce has chosen to write it this way, to maintain the mystery as long as possible. Byron's narration of the 1972 portion of the novel is spot on, allowing the reader to see the significance of the things he is missing while maintaining the desperate naïvete of a child trying to assume the role of an adult. Jim is mostly a sympathetic character but the necessary withholding of his past lessens this a bit. Throughout both portions of the novel there is a feeling of overwhelming sadness at perceived, pervasive failure and the inability to maintain perfection but in the end there is a flicker of hope that the striving is good enough and that connection, even imperfect connection, can repair the breaks.
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Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.