By Anna Mundow
Sunday, June 20, 2010; BW12
THE SINGER'S GUN
By Emily St. John Mandel
Unbridled. 287 pp. $24.95
"The Singer's Gun" begins like a straightforward crime thriller: "In an office on the bright sharp edge of New York, glass tower, Alexandra Broden was listening to a telephone conversation. . . . A man's voice: It's done. There is a sound on the tape here -- the woman's sharp intake of breath."
But Emily St. John Mandel's new novel is something far rarer than this classic noir opening suggests. She introduces us to haunted, often fugitive individuals stranded in places from New York to Italy, from the past to the present. And her book strikes a perfect balance between introspection and action.
Broden, we soon learn, works for the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service division. She is searching for Anton Walker; we can only guess why. Mandel abruptly takes us to the island of Ischia in the Gulf of Naples, where Anton has stayed on following his honeymoon, his new wife having returned to New York.
This elegantly looping narrative repeatedly revisits the past, where overlapping secrets explain the links between Anton; Elena, his ex-secretary and recent lover; and Aria, Anton's cousin and erstwhile partner in crime. As Mandel skillfully layers and then cunningly exposes these interlocking puzzles, we gradually realize that identity fraud is at the heart of the plot and at the core of these lives. Anton's elderly parents sell stolen antiques while Cousin Aria deals in deadlier contraband. Anton and Elena have invented their own résumés, not for profit but to gain the legitimacy of office jobs in a corporate world that Mandel brilliantly depicts as the ultimate altered reality.
When Anton is demoted, his carefully constructed life begins to unravel, and his cousin pressures him to participate in one last crime. "There was an idea he'd been thinking about for years now," Mandel writes of her oddly attractive hero. "Everything he saw contained a flicker of divinity. . . . It still seemed plausible in those days that everything might somehow fall back into place."
Dread gradually supplants hope, however, and when violence intrudes -- sickening in its casual efficiency -- the best that Mandel's characters can hope for is the chance to live a different kind of lie. Mandel's readers, on the other hand, will surely appreciate the novel's decidedly grown-up denouement, a fitting conclusion to an eminently satisfying thriller.
Anna Mundow is a literary correspondent for the Boston Globe and a contributor to the Irish Times.