By Jonathan Weisman
Twelve. 341 pp. $26
Jonathan Weisman’s first novel, “No. 4 Imperial Lane,” starts down the worn path of innocents abroad but almost immediately veers off into unfamiliar territory. In one seductive chapter after another, we’re led through an extended elegy that expands from private sorrow to lost empire, a potentially ponderous scope that makes the novel’s gracefulness all the more remarkable.
Weisman is an economic policy reporter in Washington, which sounds like poisonous preparation for writing a poignant novel, but he understands the way money molds lives and nations, the way class persists in our allegedly classless era. Just as important, he’s developed an elegant style, a sympathetic understanding of characters and a facility with complicated plots.
The narrator of “No. 4 Imperial Lane” is David Heller, an American college student who comes to England in 1988 and promptly falls in love with a young woman at the University of Sussex. She’s slightly out of his league and just exotic enough to appeal to an affable Southerner dazzled by mohawks, literary theory and strident political protests. But all that spellbinding newness leads him paradoxically back into the past. To stay in England and near his girlfriend, David takes a low-paying job as a personal aide to a quadriplegic man named Hans Bromwell, who lives at No. 4 Imperial Lane, an address fraught with ironic meaning.
“My only notion of quadriplegia,” David confesses, “came from the movies: noble invalids painstakingly painting with their teeth or spelling out impenetrable theories about the origins of the universe one letter at a time.” He imagines playing the “trusty valet” to some long-suffering hero who will gently blossom in the sunlight of David’s sympathy. Instead, he finds a bitter, anti-Semitic “corpse” in a flat smelling of vapor rub and excrement. Rather than inspiring Hans to artistic or scientific breakthroughs, David’s job includes emptying the urine bag and shifting his patient every few hours to avoid bedsores. “I was twenty years old and had never cared for anything in my life,” he says, “except a few goldfish.”
This dreary set-up may not appeal to readers any more than it appeals to David, but if you persist as he does, you’ll find surprising richness here. Weisman, who once worked at The Washington Post, quickly complicates this story with subtle strands of misery stretching back into each character’s past. David, we come to realize, is not the carefree American tripping around the world on a lark; he’s struggling to escape the gravitational pull of a black hole of grief back home. If he can’t forget that pain, he’ll subsume it in the boundless tragedy of the Bromwell family.
Weisman draws Hans and his alcoholic sister, Elizabeth, in Gothic hues. Both siblings remain aristocratic enough to maintain an air of superiority and just ironic enough to mock their Dickensian condition. Hans was raised to be a gentleman, once his days of drinking and whoring were exhausted, while Elizabeth was tutored in isolation exclusively in the works of Shakespeare. Decades later, her speech is still festooned with quotations from the Bard, an affectation that makes her even more eccentric. She and her crippled brother are among the last descendants of a once-regal family, now reduced, through bad luck and bad choices, to selling off their antique furniture to pay medical bills. A dining room set, a bookcase — pretty soon, the place will be bare.
“When sorrows come,” Elizabeth says, “they come not single spies, but in battalions.” But quoting “Hamlet” can provide only so much solace. “The bitterness over our entwined and ruined fates was just beginning to creep in,” she admits.
“We were born with so much, and look at us now,” Hans sighs. “We destroyed each other.”
In Weisman’s sensitive telling, this claustrophobic tale is surprisingly engaging, leavened with tenderness and gallows humor. But what really elevates “No. 4 Imperial Lane” is the novel’s complicated structure. In the evenings, when Hans is settled, David sits with Elizabeth and listens to the incredible tale of her life.
“What do you know of the Portuguese wars in Africa?” she asks one night.
That’s a risky strategy on the author’s part. David may be pinned down by a girlfriend and a vague sense of obligation to an acerbic invalid, but American readers are far less likely to feign interest in the long-ago, far-away machinations of nations they cannot place on a map. Fortunately, Weisman has been explaining complex political and economic affairs to newspaper readers for years. That background, combined with his talent for drama, allows him to create a captivating story of Elizabeth’s experience in Nova Lisboa and other doomed realms.
The narrative switches to the omniscient third person for these sections, while still allowing us to feel that we’re hearing this account as Elizabeth reveals it to David at the kitchen table while drinking herself to sleep. Years ago, she says, she was like Miranda released from the island, a young woman who knew nothing of the world. When a friend suggested they prance off to Algarve, Portugal, she followed along, hoping for adventure.
Subsequent chapters present a braided exploration of a woman’s ordeal and an empire’s decline. It’s a story both intimate and transnational, deftly supplying all the political background many readers will need while dramatizing the exigencies of civil war and the stubbornness of leaders who won’t admit that their era of glamorized repression has passed. The Portuguese prime minister tries to rally “a nation and an empire behind a cause of such antiquity that its mere mention made mockery of it,” Weisman writes. (A brief timeline at the back provides handy reminders of Portugal’s grim missteps at home and in Angola.) As guerrilla warfare tears away the facade of imperial gentility and tens of thousands of Portuguese flee the province they thought was theirs, Elizabeth finds her own domestic bliss equally imperiled. And as he listens, increasingly rapt by her tale, David approaches the truth of this dissipated family.
With these nested stories of decline, great and small, Weisman has written a tragedy of rare power and richness. In delineating the ways people are caught in the tides of history, he shows how a few brave individuals manage to stand against that torrent and provide a refuge for those they love. Young David is no hero, but as he discovers the dimensions of his naivete and the limits of his power, he also comes to appreciate his capacity to comfort those left in the ruins.
If lately you’ve been shuffling through too many novels that feel a little unambitious, vaguely sentimental, even adolescent, “No. 4 Imperial Lane” could give your summer reading some real depth.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
On August 11 at 7 p.m., Jonathan Weisman will be at Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC.