No wonder Marilynne Robinson blurbed so rapturously about this book. Like her novels, it coaxes intense light from small moments, clouds, grasses, birdsong, faces. Its outwardly unremarkable protagonists, George Crosby and his father, Howard, are revealed as extraordinarily complex human beings.
The novel begins as George, an old man with a good life, surrounded by his family, lies dying. He has two loving daughters and a devoted wife. After his retirement as a guidance counselor, he began a second career buying and repairing old clocks. Recollections, like the people tiptoeing in and out, come and go pell-mell. George can no longer grasp the continuity, the story of his life. His memory has become a mosaic, the tiles coming apart and crumbling as the inexorable dying process works in him.
Howard's story alternates with George's. He had made his meager living as a tinker, plying the back roads of Maine with a wagon and mule to sell household items, and sometimes liquor, to isolated farms. But this unassuming man is an intense poetic visionary. Perhaps his perceptive powers are somehow related to his epilepsy, whose fits the author details with astounding precision. "It was as if there were a secret door that opened on its own to an electric storm spinning somewhere on the edges of the solar system. ... Needles of electricity forked out of the whirlpool of sparks."
Between spells, Howard's doors of perception are wide open. Every flower and tree and stone vibrate in his vision, as if consumed by an inner fire. He wants to penetrate the essence of reality. "But the thing itself is not forest and light and dark, but something else. ... The quilt of leaves and light and shadow might part and I'd be given a glimpse of what is on the other side." He yearns to pass through some seam of reality and become part of or rejoin the primal energy pulse of the world.
The novel is haunted by two theories of time: the precision clockmaker universe and the entropic feel of change and decay, the visible depredations of time. The entire book is written in the elegaic mood of Virginia Woolf's "Time Passes" section of "To the Lighthouse." "Everything is made to perish," Howard muses. "The wonder of anything at all is that it has not already done so. No ... the wonder of anything at all is that it was made in the first place. What persists beyond this cataract of making and unmaking?"
This beautiful novel is sui generis; the most insignificant events, like George's funeral rite for a mouse, radiate fire and light.
Brigitte Frase of Minneapolis also reviews for the Los Angeles Times.