The protagonists of Peter C. Baker's understated debut novel live on different continents and speak different languages. They'll never meet, or even be in the same room. But both have been caught up in the cruel vortex of America's 21st-century wars, their lives reshaped by forces beyond their control.
Half of "Planes" takes place in Italy, where Amira, a relative newlywed in her 30s, waits for a husband who might not return. It's been two years since Ayoub, a Muslim, traveled to Pakistan, a trip that ended with him in custody.
Held at a CIA interrogation site in Morocco, Ayoub hasn't been accused of a crime. But Amira's neighbors know of her husband's plight, and many have abandoned her. Forlorn, she starts taking long walks with Paolo, an old high-school classmate. It's a chaste relationship that nonetheless makes her feel disloyal.
In alternating chapters, Baker tells a seemingly unrelated story about a middle-aged North Carolina woman named Melanie. A former liberal activist, she's now a mainstream Democrat on her local school board. Though she loves her husband, Art, she's having an affair with Bradley, a Republican board member and prominent businessman.
Things get more complicated for Melanie when an old activist-friend gets in touch. The friend wants to protest outside a local airport that facilitates the CIA's oft-brutal overseas interrogations. A reporter is digging into the story, and it appears that Bradley is involved.
It's not initially obvious why these women are in the same book, an unhurried tale that features some small, satisfying twists. That's by design. Baker has structured these narratives as independent entities. Though each could be a satisfying novel of its own, they overlap and fruitfully complement one another.
The novel's title offers clues about Baker's intent. "Planes," of course, alludes to the jets that transport prisoners like Ayoub and those that depart from the secretive North Carolina hangar.
But the word "planes" also serves as a metaphor for the brain's tendency to forget or strip away details, flattening complicated events into two-dimensional planes that are easier to understand, categorize, act upon. It's a necessary process, part of our species' evolution, but it can be destructive. In Amira's case — and to a lesser extent, Melanie's — neighbors and erstwhile friends plane away complexities, arriving at conclusions based on snippets of information.
This manifests itself in various ways, most palpably in the condescension with which friends, family and acquaintances sometimes treat both women. Amira, named Maria at birth, changed her name when she converted to her husband's faith. Some people interpret this as license to challenge her authenticity. Paolo asks why she adopted her husband's religion, "especially since he's not so observant." Later, a virtual stranger asks, "What's your real name, signora?"
Likewise, in a scene that nicely captures the arrogance that often informs ideological zealotry, Melanie's friend — a woman who tells herself she's making a difference by sending all-caps e-mail "blasts" about antiwar protests — patronizingly suggests that serving on a school board is activism for the timid.
Baker opts for a restrained narrative voice. His sentences don't include inessential words or draw attention to themselves; nor are they particularly quotable. But his prose is an apt delivery system for a subtle portrait of two women who've been robbed of things they might never recover.
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.
By: Peter C. Baker.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 256 pages, $27.