Howard Norman’s latest novel, “Next Life Might Be Kinder,” sets out its premise in its first sentence: “After my wife, Elizabeth Church, was murdered by the bellman Alphonse Padgett in the Essex Hotel, she did not leave me.”
The novel’s narrator, the grief-stricken — perhaps grief-deranged — Sam Lattimore, is a struggling novelist who meets the love of his life at a photography exhibit. Sam and Elizabeth quickly enter into an erotically charged marriage. They take an apartment at the Essex Hotel in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Sam works on his next novel and writes radio episodes, while Lizzy works on her doctoral dissertation. The couple lead what should be an idyllic existence, balanced between the life of the mind and a sensuous exploration of art and each other.
But evil intrudes in the shape of Alphonse Padgett, the “creep bellman,” as Sam and Lizzy call him. Padgett is the kind of unreasoning, implacable menace that occasionally enters ordinary lives: He is obsessed with Elizabeth, and neither threats of firing nor a beating by the hotel’s house detective will dissuade him. The couple react as many of us would: While they don’t underestimate the danger, they refuse to be driven from their home and lives. And so their love moves toward tragedy.
When the novel begins, that tragedy has already occurred. Elizabeth is dead but not gone; Padgett is in prison, and Sam has moved to a seaside cottage. Needing money, he’s sold his story to a pretentious Norwegian film director. Sam also is in a contentious relationship with a therapist, with the contention centering around the therapist’s refusal to believe that most nights Elizabeth appears on the beach behind Sam’s cottage, lays out 11 books on the sand and visits with him.
And so the novel proceeds, not exactly chronologically, through Sam’s present-time attempts to deal with his grief and with the comically overdone Norwegian director, and through the past, where the threat of Padgett is just one part of Sam and Lizzy’s life together. The book is intricately plotted, with even minor incidents skillfully juxtaposed against the overarching story. Every element is handled well, from the therapy sessions, to the growing threat of the bellman, to Sam’s present-day coming apart, to Elizabeth’s appearances on the beach.
Without burdening the novel by trying to explain the unexplainable, Norman makes the inexplicable entirely plausible. “Next Life Might Be Kinder” is a love story, a ghost story, an unconventional murder mystery and a meditation on art and evil and grief.
The novel resists closure (a word Sam Lattimore hates), but the end is compelling and satisfying. Howard Norman has written a complex literary novel and a page-turner that’s impossible to put down.
John Reimringer’s first novel, “Vestments,” won the 2011 Minnesota Book Award for the novel and short story. He lives in St. Paul.