The title of Tim Murphy’s novel “Christodora” refers to the building where several of its characters live, but its focus is much wider than that. This ambitious novel leaps around in time, following more than a half-dozen major characters across decades, and along the way touching on creativity, activism, gentrification, addiction and family.
Although it takes some time to establish its structure and narrative flow, the work that eventually emerges is powerful and compelling. It feels deeply relevant even when it covers events set several decades in the past.
If one character stands out most here, it’s Mateo, a troubled young artist whose relationship to his (adoptive) parents leads to some of the book’s most gut-wrenching scenes. Mateo spends much of the novel struggling with addiction, and he’s far from the only character to do so. Nearly all of the characters here are haunted by something, whether it’s the drug problem that leads one character away from an influential stint in AIDS activism to a life on the margins, or the long-running fissures in Mateo’s parents’ marriage, sparked by a fear of a family history of depression.
And the fact that Murphy takes a historical view here, covering 40 years in total, means that the flaws, recriminations and aftereffects of decisions good and bad are able to play out over an extended period. Seemingly wise decisions turn out to have problematic effects, and chance meetings can lead to life-changing events.
“Christodora” leaps through time from chapter to chapter, and it can be initially disorienting to see characters age and grow younger from page to page. Where this goes, ultimately, is toward a greater understanding of what motivates these characters. This is especially true of Ysabel, Mateo’s birth mother, whose own progression toward activism and coming into her own results in some of the novel’s most moving scenes.
And because of the changes in the neighborhood where the novel begins (although a good portion of it is also set in California), Murphy is able to comment on gentrification — how a neighborhood that abounded with danger one decade could become home to an affluent group of residents in a relatively short time.
This is a novel that abounds with ambition, but it largely succeeds in grappling with a host of grand themes. And because of its specificity, it also offers an implicit question to the reader: If this story could be born out of one building, what fascinating narratives might emerge from another?
Tobias Carroll is managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn.
By: Tim Murphy.
Publisher: Grove Press, 430 pages, $26.