Van Booy is a writer who pays homage to language. In his 2010 interview he said, "A writer is someone who feels a spiritual connection to the way language contains the fabric of our lives." This connection is evident on every page of his novel, The Illusion of Separateness. He takes the quotidian details of event and setting, and with sparse, lyrical phrasing, makes them shimmer. With language that slips easily between the mundane and the ineffable, Van Booy's work reads like a long, beautiful prose poem that unfurls in a single exhalation.
Wending its way through time (1944 to 2010) and place (USA, France, and England) the novel weaves together lives that at first glance appear to be separate. Thematically and metaphorically, what binds the characters together is that each of them is missing something. In a sense, the novel unfolds and comes together in the spaces of emptiness or absence.
Martin, the first character we meet, is missing his past; he is adopted and has no knowledge of his earliest life. Mr. Hugo, who appears at the retirement home for Hollywood stars where Martin works, has half of his face missing. "From one side I looked normal...Then I, Mr. Hugo, turn my head, people gasp. Afraid of what is not there." Van Booy leaves us with the vague tease that these two characters are connected. Then, traveling back in time, we see Mr. Hugo befriend a young boy named Danny who has never known his father. Again, an emptiness. Mr. Hugo teaches Danny to read by demonstrating the interconnectedness of curves and lines on a page. "I tried to convey to the boy how people's lives are often altered by curved lines read slowly from paper, sand, or stone."
It is the story of John Bray, whom we first meet in 1942, that provides the novel's central arc. When we first encounter him, he is preparing for deployment to England, where he will be a pilot as part of the top secret Operation Carpetbagger, flying B-24 bombers over occupied Europe (see Beyond the Book). He has also just fallen in love with and married Harriet:
He had never loved anyone so much. But it was something he could never admit to her. It was a truth anchored in his heart so that her pain might be less, so that she might find another, get married again, have children, watch them grow ... even forget, even forget the boy she was first married to, who took her picture at Coney Island, then was blown to bits in his B-24 by antiaircraft guns over the French coast, escape impossible.
John's life and death struggle will keep the reader turning pages; it provides the weft of tension that Van Booy weaves through the warp of the other stories' strands as we hold our collective breath, waiting to discover what happens next.
Other characters include Sébastien, a young French boy who finds the burnt skeleton of a plane in the woods behind his farmhouse, and Amelia, a young blind woman named for Amelia Earhart. Like all Van Booy's characters, they reside inside the raw places of the heart, where something is absent but also where love is a presence waiting to be discovered. For Sébastien, Van Booy writes, "His mother shouts at him to get dressed, but he's looking at the hollow socket. He can feel what is not there." And at another point Amelia thinks, listening to the "rush of cars," "I wonder what they hope will happen and what they are afraid of? For me, it's the same thing and has to do with falling in love."
Some of the characters are written in first person, others in third. In less capable hands, this changing point of view could prove distracting, but with Van Booy's poetry, his distinct voices, and his richly imagined characterizations, the switches work. That he won the world's richest short story prize, the Frank O'Connor Award, for his collection Love Begins in Winter, is no surprise. Each segment of the novel is written as a self-contained story, structurally similar to a collection of linked short stories. But adding another dimension to the stories are the strands of "connectedness" that Van Booy lengthens each time he returns to a particular character. Gradually and subtly, through a common object, a shared event, a repeated name, we begin to understand how these characters relate to each other and how their stories will ultimately coalesce into a finely woven single tapestry.
In the end, it is love that most interests Van Booy. Not the easy kind that happens with the first blush of attraction but the kind that endures. "I think anyone can fall in love, if you're open and you're willing," he told Interview Magazine, "but the real test is sustaining it after all the excitement has worn off." And so it is no surprise that love binds the characters together. Love will fill what is missing in their hearts.
If there is anything not to love in The Illusion of Separateness, it is the sense that events are too connected, that Van Booy wraps up the stories with too neat a bow. The message, "we are all one and everything is connected," is perhaps pushed a bit too hard. But this is by no means a fatal flaw. The book shines in its language. The characters are tenderly, fully, and lovingly rendered, and their stories keep the reader falling in love. "Every day is a masterpiece, even if it crushes you," Amelia says. This is how Van Booy approaches his work, and in his hands, every story is a masterpiece, both crushing and uplifting as well.
This review was originally published in June 2013, and has been updated for the June 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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