Sam Lattimore, the character relating Howard Norman’s quirky and probing new novel, is not a reliable narrator. Or is he?
The first sentence of “Next Life Might Be Kinder” makes us doubt Lattimore’s version of reality — while at the same time riveting our attention: “After my wife, Elizabeth Church, was murdered by the bellman Alfonse Padgett in the Essex Hotel, she did not leave me.”
Lattimore claims that he still sees his wife almost every night since her death on a beach in Nova Scotia where he now lives. As he spins his tale, it’s easy to begin questioning other facts as well. Are the sexy, affectionate anecdotes from his marriage remembered accurately? Was Elizabeth as beguilingly sweet as he claims? Was he?
But Norman, a Washington area writer who has twice been a finalist for the National Book Award, is doing something more interesting here than working toward some shocking revelation. With brief chapters that switch between past and present, scenes that include Lattimore’s talks with his dead wife, visits with his psychiatrist, memories of Elizabeth, and his day-to-day life after her death, Norman explores grief and loss and even truth.
And yet the novel moves quickly, lightly, never weighed down by the sadness it explores.
Although Lattimore’s story is told piecemeal and out of chronology, we quickly pick up the plot: In 1972, newly married Elizabeth was murdered by a bellman she spurned during dancing lessons at a hotel in Halifax. The novel opens 18 months later, as a film is being made about Elizabeth’s murder, and the director and his assistant keep asking Lattimore for more details. Although he purchased the cottage he’s living in with the proceeds from selling his story, the narrator is angry about this project.He reads news stories about the director and then secretly visits the film set.
Lattimore never descends into self-pity, although he occasionally admits to it. A man bereft, he remains calm and rational — dispassionate in the midst of passion and its loss. He argues logically with his psychiatrist about whether he actually sees Elizabeth, resisting the doctor’s (and the world’s) idea of closure.
Slowly, we also get the intimate details of their life together that the director is longing for. Lattimore describes the Victorian chaise longue they made love on, how his wife always kissed him, then whispered, “Tonight, your Elizabeth.” She makes an intricate salad nicoise when he gets a job writing a radio play. She puts a touch of perfume behind each ear and each knee before their dance lesson. “Who’d be down there to notice perfume?” he asked lightly.
Their very slightness gives these details power — life’s small pleasures, ripped away before time could make them mundane.
As is typical in his work, including his most famous novel, “The Bird Artist,” Norman deepens the story by using art to elucidate the questions he is exploring. Indeed, the book’s title comes from an exhibition of photographs in Nova Scotia by the American photographer Robert Frank, where Lattimore meets his wife. Elizabeth points out that Frank has written “Next Life Will Be Kinder” on all 20 photographs. “They’re unsettling, don’t you think — those words? We’re going to have to think about them for a while.” Which the novel then does.
The film being produced (which has the same title) is also a means for Norman to examine reality vs. perception, art vs. life. The director tells Lattimore at one point: “What ‘based on a true story’ means is my film will tell what really happened, only better.”
Lattimore would be pleased to know this novel doesn’t really offer closure, in part because he is, by the end, an entirely reliable narrator. Questions aren’t answered; grief remains, even if life becomes a bit softer.
Burns is head of creative writing at the University of Southampton in England. Her collection of stories, “The Missing Woman,” will be published next year. At 6 p.m. Saturday, Norman will be at Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
NEXT LIFE MIGHT BE KINDER
By Howard Norman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 255 pp. $26