Over the centuries, the epistolary novel has proved a unique means of enhancing a reader’s sense of reality and revealing a character’s hidden depths. Whether the back-and-forth correspondence between lovers and schemers in “Dangerous Liaisons,” the letters Saul Bellow’s Herzog writes in his head, the “mass of typewriting” that makes up “Dracula,” or Bridget Jones’ diary, fiction’s private documents bring us closer to the truth.

A mesmerizing new novel by an award-winning Norwegian writer thrillingly revitalizes the epistolary form. Carl Frode Tiller’s “Encircling” revolves around an original conceit. David has amnesia and can’t remember who he is. In an effort to rewire his mind he places a newspaper ad asking friends and relatives to come forward and replay his memories. Three people write back and recount their relationship with him, and as they fill in the gaps they lay bare their own damaged lives and incomplete selves.

In the first set of letters, David’s friend Jon relays their childhood in a small, sleepy sawmill town, then their rebellious teens. The pair become secret lovers until their affair fizzles out and drags them in different directions. The next narrative belongs to David’s estranged stepfather, Arvid, who speaks fondly of the family now lost to him, before divulging the jealousies and worries that David and his mother inflicted on him. Tiller’s last section focuses on Silje, David’s teenage girlfriend, who discloses their erotic encounters but also their morbid pursuits — “attempts to get as close to death as possible, in order to gain a fresh perspective on life.”

But “Encircling” doesn’t only consist of letters to David. Tiller’s three characters also have their own stories to tell, each of them concerning their current situation — or rather predicament. Arvid is battling cancer and Silje is warring with her husband. The best strand is Jon’s — so good, in fact, that it is a pity it peters out when it does. Seething with rage or “bleeding inside” with embarrassment, he bounces from one conflict to another, all the time leaving a wake of destruction: walking out on his bandmates mid-tour, clashing with his family, then tipped over the edge by his ex-girlfriend. After creating a clammy atmosphere, Tiller skillfully cranks up the tension to agonizing levels.

By chopping and changing his narrators, Tiller flaunts a range of registers and perspectives. With each successive testimony, a series of kinks and creases materializes, resulting in a contradictory portrait of David. By the end of the novel he remains an enigma. Those who knew him, though, are so brilliantly illuminated that we can discern every foible and flaw.

Tiller’s novel — seamlessly translated by Barbara J. Haveland — is the first volume of a trilogy. It is tempting to draw parallels with fellow countryman Karl Ove Knausgaard, and his equally up-close-and-personal sequence of books on identity and Nordic life. However, Tiller has opted for tight character studies over loose plotting, and his authentic voices consistently entrance and intrigue.

 

Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Encircling
By: Carl Frode Tiller, translated from the Norwegian by Barbara J. Haveland.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 326 pages, $16.