auster“I am alone in the dark, turning the world around in my head as I struggle through another bout of insomnia, another white night in the great American wilderness.”

It is a talented author who can be immediately recognised by an untethered passage of their work. I could pick out a piece of Peter James from a line-up with little difficulty, and Neil Gaiman is these days pretty easy to distinguish too. However, I find few with a voice and style as distinctive as Paul Auster. I never think to consider him when I’m listing my favourite authors, as this is only the third time I’ve read him (see also: Oracle Night), but he does work magic.

In Man In The Dark, we meet August Brill, a septuagenarian former journalist who has recently mangled his leg in a car accident and moved in with his daughter and granddaughter. It is a house of sadness: August has recently lost his wife, Miriam (his daughter) is still struggling to come to terms with her divorce, and Katya (his granddaughter) is stuck in a rut after her boyfriend was killed in Iraq. Unable to sleep, August begins to tell himself a story.

He concocts an alternate timeline where the Twin Towers never fell and instead of the America going to war with Iraq, it goes to war with itself. In the aftermath of Bush’s election, a civil war breaks out among the states as some seek independence and others fight to remain united. Within this world, Owen Brick is a party magician who has been drafted into the war, only to find that he has been given a mission he cannot refuse. Because it turns out that this alternate America is all taking place in the head of a writer. If Brick can shoot the narrator, the world will end, the war will stop and peace will be restored.

Owen Brick must kill August Brill.

True to form, Auster once again employs themes of intertextuality, loneliness, the complexity of storytelling and obsession. It took a while to get going but it’s testament to the fact that you shouldn’t always trust the first few pages. It turned out to be one of the most haunting and beautiful books I’ve read this year so far. Auster knows what he’s doing and you have to admire the paths the takes and the ideas he chooses. There are so many elements of a love story here too, as August talks about how he met his wife Sonia and how they set about making a life for themselves. It’s a book of grieving people, sure, but it’s also a book laced through with hope and the realisation that things can and will get better.

The ending caught me off guard, but was beautiful. It’s been a fair while since I cried at a book, and this was the closest I’ve come in a long time. I finished it and found myself stunned, having to take a few deep breaths before I could carry on with anything else. It takes a special kind of book to do that to you.

The alternate world we see in August’s mind is a pretty interesting one. We only get scant information regarding this new America, and the book cleverly and carefully avoids a huge chunk of exposition, instead giving us just enough to be interested and get the gist as to what’s going on, but not so much that it becomes tedious and detracts from the plot. Auster weaves several stories together with grace and artistry and under a lesser hand it might have got a bit messy, but here everything is clear and constructed beautifully.

A haunting, magical book about love, hope and family. As the weird world rolls on.

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