A brief section set on a windswept rural English hillside in the summer of 1989 opens Polly Samson's novel, "The Kindness." Twenty-year-old Julian is hawking with Julia, a married woman eight years his senior. Despite the age gap — not to mention Julia's abusive husband — the two are ecstatically in love.
Julian "had the air of a boy who'd crossed three continents to see her, his sweatshirt knotted round his waist. Impossibly young, with hair falling over his eyes, and an uncertain lope. … He didn't dare kiss her, he said, with the hawk glaring at him like that from the end of her wrist."
In addition to displaying assured prose, Samson's book is precisely plotted. The narrative covers 23 years, most of it rendered from Julian's point of view. Following the falconry depiction, it skips eight years to 1997. Not until the novel's last quarter does Samson switch to Julia's viewpoint. Frequent time shifts from the present to flashbacks demand that readers stay alert. What is happening in the "now," and what is a memory? Clearly Samson presumes intelligence in her readers.
Julian is a promising university student but gives up academia to live with Julia. Fortunately, he is a talented writer of children's books and turns to this to make a living. His series written in the voice of a dog earns him accolades in children's literature circles.
When he revisits in his memory the illness of his and Julia's little daughter, Mira, Julian is overwhelmed with grief. At age 3 Mira developed liver cancer and nearly died. Samson affectingly portrays the sleepless nights Julian and Julia had spent in a desperate vigil by her hospital bed. Julian's terror is palpable:
"The pumps and IV tubes doled out the hours in droplets. He watched the rise and fall of her chest. If his concentration failed, her heart might stop. His eyes twitched from monitor to monitor, his ear tuned to every breath and click. Her feed might choke her. Her ventilator fail."
There are other plot twists, too. There is Julian's affair with Katie, a woman he has known half his life. And there is Julia's affair with Karl, Julian's former school friend. Karl is now an attractive medical researcher. The scene in which Julian finds Karl and Julia in bed together — Mira snuggled up between them — is memorable.
The cast of characters in "The Kindness" is blatantly self-centered. Constant betrayal of others brings them unhappiness, and somehow they have all learned to deceive themselves. Perhaps this dark view of humans is what the author intended.
Katherine Bailey is a Bloomington-based book critic.