AFTER

By Claire Tristram

Farrar Straus Giroux. 194 pp. $20

As if the headlines weren't already too much to bear, now we have to bear with novelists trying too hard to be topical and therefore meaningful. Claire Tristram's debut novel, After, forces the personal and the political into a post-Sept. 11 marriage that satisfies neither of them.

One year after her husband has died at the hands of Muslim extremists, a young widow discovers that she "could no longer be stoic, nor grieving. Day by day, month after month, without her attending to it, her grief had subtly changed its shape, until what was left was not quite grief at all, but something she could only describe as desire. She ate with her fingers. She slept naked. Grocery boys aroused her." To mark the anniversary, she decides to take a Muslim lover as a way of -- what? Exploring her grief? Exacting revenge? Having a sexual awakening? Indulging a culturally charged sexual fetish? Something's off.

She meets a man at a conference and invites him to a one-night tryst at a remote seaside hotel. A married, middle-aged Iranian exile with two daughters and a loss of his own to deal with, he's gentle, almost courtly, an odd stand-in for the very different sort of men who killed her husband. "Knowing her to be so afflicted, to be a widow under these extreme circumstances, made her infinitely more precious to him. He wondered whether this widow had sensed in him also a gap, a hole, a tragedy in need of resolution and healing, just as he had somehow sensed it in her."

The affair, brief and tinged with violence, veers between tepidly erotic and implausibly sadomasochistic. The point of view alternates, as it does for most of the book, between his and hers: "She lay limp before him, splayed. He was filled with her animal smell, loamy, with the hint of decay." "She found the third wire hanger at the foot of the bed where she had left it, stretched out into a long wand, and took it up in her hand, and began to tap him with it, lightly, across his buttocks. Then harder. . . . 'What are you going to do with me?' he said. 'Shut up,' she said."

If it really wrestled with vengeance and forgiveness, with sexual awakening and the dangers and uncertainties of being a stranger in a strange land, After could have been a book to remember. The publisher invites comparisons to Marguerite Duras's The Lover, but After doesn't have half the sweat and staying power. In the passages that describe the marriage of the widow and her martyred husband, one gets a glimpse of what could have been: "For the first time she noticed how she still slept to one side, as if waiting for him. She felt the coldness of the sheets, and felt the terror of his absence, and it dawned on her that she had forgotten his face entirely." The Muslim does things to and with her that her husband never would; a marriage can be indispensable and unhappy at the same time, just as a lover can be simultaneously intimate and unknown.

More's the pity, then, that Tristram keeps pushing the story toward grim-headline territory. We learn that the widow's husband was beheaded on videotape after declaring himself a Jew. (It feels crude, even cruel, to hew so closely to the terrible circumstances of Daniel Pearl's death, especially since the fictional husband in After doesn't seem to have been a very nice guy.) The tragic incident that haunts the Muslim took place in September; "nothing could compare with the absolute blue of that afternoon." When the widow ties the Muslim up and beats him with a coat hanger, she thinks about "the inherent cruelty of ordinary things. . . . A wire. A piece of string. A box cutter." Chilling reminders of Sept. 11, yes, but all they do is turn this affair into an abstraction of sleeping with the enemy. *

Jennifer Howard, a contributing editor of Book World, can be reached at howardjen@washpost.com.