We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.
– Thich Nhat Hanh
The joy of Simon Van Booy’s beautiful novel The Illusion of Separateness comes from its structure, which features a disparate group of people and examines the unseen and often unknown bonds that exist between them.
Like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Van Booy has created a Russian Doll like tale which unfolds delicately and elegantly to examine the notion that human beings are not separate, that unseen forces are creating only an illusion of that separateness. Together with some incredibly beautiful writing, this book offers a deep pleasure in teasing out just how its disparate characters are linked.
The story is told in 15 chapters that range in time from 1939 to 2010. Featuring five main characters, the book is not told chronologically, although characters appear in different sections allowing the reader to see them from differing perspectives. The novel opens in modern day LA, where Martin, the elderly caretaker at a retirement home awaits the arrival of a new resident, the parent of a wealthy film director. Martin knows that he was put into his adoptive mother’s arms by a man she never knew, and as such he is always searching for connections and for meaning.
His drive home is a long road with many lights. Sometimes people next to him glance over. When he smiles, they look mostly away. But Martin likes to think that they carry his smile for a few blocks – that even the smallest gesture is something grand
From this starting point, the narrative ripples out, across time and across continents as each new character is introduced. A disfigured man befriends a lonely boy in Manchester in the 1980s. A schoolboy in rural France in 1960 wants to impress a girl he likes with a photo he has found in the wreckage of a plane. Two lovers spend a final day together at Coney Island in 1942, before the outbreak of war; while in the Hamptons in 2005 a young blind woman is hoping for the chance to love and be loved.
Nested at the novel’s centre is the story of John, an American bomber pilot shot down in France during the war and presumed dead.
His life was here now in the dark, in the emptiness, drifting through the air over Belgium or France. It no longer mattered where. Everything that happened to him from this moment on would be an encore.
His journey through occupied France is the beating heart of the novel and the fulcrum through which all the other stories have come to be. It is a testament to Van Booy’s subtle and intelligent approach, that the connections between the characters do not appear convoluted. There is no sense that the narrative is being bent to fit an over-riding plot. Instead, he explores how the seemingly random nature of how our lives proceed, hides instead a meaning and a connection that we might never see.
Everyone was searching, he thought, trying to unravel the knot of their lives
What also gives this slender novel depth and breadth is the quality of the writing, which often veers very close to poetry. A steaming kettle is ‘driving ghosts into the world’ while a train station timetable claps with ‘the applause of letters falling’. The writing is exquisite, with the poetry of the prose balanced by short, pared back sentences. The stories and the lives of his characters are often brutal, but Van Booy finds the beauty buried in the rubble of these painful histories.
Every day is a masterpiece, even if it crushes you
Each character is uniquely drawn, all experiencing different lives but all yearning to fill an ache in their hearts. There are moments of incredible grace, as when two soldiers share a meal of bread and toffee on the ruins of the battlefield, or an elderly man making beans on toast for a lost young boy.
This style of novel runs the risk of becoming sentimental, but Van Booy escapes that charge by having his characters remain ignorant of their connections. The revelations are for the reader and the moment of communion between the two soldiers on that battlefield is seen in a myriad other moments to create a timeless, yet rooted story.
The Illusion of Separateness is a tender and pitch-perfect novel which is both heart-breaking and heart-warming in equal measure. Delicate and moving, it is an elegy to the human spirit.
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