The End of the Day
By Bill Clegg. (Scout Press, 320 pages, $27.)
Bill Clegg understands people. That might seem to be a minimum requirement for a novelist but Clegg packs his follow-up to the spellbinding "Did You Ever Have a Family" with keen, inventively observed insights — how, for instance, a woman who meets her former bestie after many years feels like a Revolutionary War re-enactor of the friendship, aping its patterns without its intimacy or ease.
Those former friends are wealthy, remote Dana and cryptic, widowed Jackie. Chapters from their viewpoints alternate with those devoted to journalist Hap and cabdriver Lupita, who used to be Dana's servant but has severed all ties to her former life. All four characters linger on the past, which sometimes gets Clegg into trouble. As he gradually reveals the incident that connects them, he introduces too many subsidiary characters and a complicated non-chronology that requires him to spend a lot of time getting us up to speed. Fortunately, everything comes together for a bittersweet finale in which the characters finally reckon with the fact that the past is not finished with them.
Into the Unbounded Night By Mitchell James Kaplan. (Regal House, 262 pages, $16.95.)
Admirers of "By Fire, By Water," Mitchell James Kaplan's accomplished 2010 work of historical fiction, will find his second novel no less captivating. "Into the Unbounded Night" is set in first-century Rome, where, despite the tyrannical regime, Judeans fight, sometimes against each other, for freedom and on behalf of various strains of monotheism, even as early Christianity is unfolding. That's an ambitious and complex story to tell, but Kaplan has studied deep into history and relays it via six characters whose narratives eventually intertwine.
Aislin is a young woman from what is now Britain who has been brutalized by Roman soldiers and makes her way to Rome to seek revenge, accompanied by Septimus, a Roman army deserter who has befriended her. Vespasian is the Roman general who sacked her home and later rises to more power in his home city, and who will eventually attack Jerusalem, destroying its Second Temple. Paulus is an elderly early Christian whom Aislin encounters in prison (later to be known as the Christian apostle Paul), and Yohanan, whom she meets and marries later, is an early Jewish teacher who opposes Zealot violence and strives to shape a wise, compassionate monotheistic tradition.
Aislin's disabled son Faolan is also a key character, a child mocked by most of the world who becomes an almost mystical symbol of life and hope. And always, "Companions" and "Messengers" from several religious traditions whisper in the dark in a story that is continually exploring the nature of true holiness and redemption. "The sun may turn black but even in that muck, if you keep your eyes open, you will discern a glimmer," a seer in Aislin's native Albion tells her people. This is heavy stuff, but Kaplan is a gifted storyteller and approaches his story with reverence and nuance. The pursuit of meaning and hope in a dark time is an age-old theme, and yet ever fresh. "Into the Unbounded Night" is a perfect book to top our reading piles in the coming COVID winter.