"Quartet for the End of Time," by Johanna Skibsrud. (W. W. Norton)

Johanna Skibsrud’s novel is an ambitious, tough-minded story that reaches across two war-torn decades and beyond. In its temporal sweep, the novel recalls Ian McEwan’s “Atonement,” another war story that begins in the 1930s with an original sin and a case of mistaken identity that reverberates through the years. But unlike that book — a novel about the dishonesty of novelists in the face of war — “Quartet for the End of Time” entertains none of the usual comforts of war fiction. Here, war inspires neither heroism nor romance — just a series of difficult and lonely compromises.

When the novel opens, in the summer of 1932, Washington is besieged by the self-proclaimed Bonus Army. As the Depression begins to bite, tens of thousands of unemployed World War I veterans, along with their wives and children, have gathered to demand the immediate payment of their service benefit, a lump sum that the government has promised will be paid in 1945. Sutton Kelly, the teenage daughter of a powerful judge turned congressman, and her elder brother, Alden, have been visiting the camps to bring food to a group that includes a boy named Douglas Sinclair and his veteran father, Arthur. Sutton is compassionate, and Alden is fired up by the revolutionary talk that swirls among the communists in the camp — to the point where he is persuaded to carry an explosive device into the Capitol, to a final destination he doesn’t know. But when riots erupt on the Mall, the bomb is discovered. Sutton is pressured to point the finger at Douglas’s father instead of her brother.

As the consequences of this sin play out, Skibsrud avoids a straightforward narrative arc, instead interweaving the tales of its three central characters — Sutton, Alden and Douglas — in symphonic-like movements. In its style, too, the book takes an unusual approach: Sentences sneak up on their meaning, duck aside, then arrive at the point and skitter off. There’s no punctuation for direct speech, challenging the division between what is said and what is done.

By avoiding narrative cliches, Skibsrud is able to reinvigorate the history her novel rests on, so that events hit us, as they hit these characters, as shocks. In part this is because the story takes the back roads from 1918 to 1945 — via Siberia and the disastrous American intervention in the Russian Civil War; Washington and the secret battles of the communist underground; and the Florida Keys, where hundreds of veterans in a federal work camp were killed by a hurricane in 1935.

But these events also feel real because the characters are not distinguished by any particular heroism; they are not always even at the center of their stories. Alden’s communist sympathies rot into horror not at what he sees with his own eyes, but at what he sees happen to the witnesses — such as the comrade who is hounded to suicide by his memories of the Soviet famine of 1932. Sutton, as a journalist, finds herself limited by what stories her editors will allow her, as a woman, to pursue. She manages to get close enough to the action only at the end of the war. Her final assignment is a trip to Dachau, where a Polish doctor calmly describes the monstrous experiments performed on prisoners. It is the end of her story. Looking down as she flies home over the English Channel, Sutton can no longer distinguish between water and sky — and can no longer make sense of anything she is seeing.

Unlike the children of the former judge, Douglas is a boy who has nothing but the boots he has been bequeathed. Following the Bonus Army marches, he trudges across a Depression-crippled America amid groups of rootless men, always in search of a trace of his father, whose location and fate he doesn’t know, and of work that will allow him, if only briefly, to stay in one place. The relationships between people and events in this novel are a constellation, not a sequence. An “interlude” of images in the middle of the book — which includes photographs of the Bonus Army, migrant workers, soldiers, politicians and refugees — helps ground the story.

The author explains that her novel owes its title, structure and ambition to a quartet by the French composer Olivier Messiaen, written for clarinet, piano, cello and violin — the instruments and musicians available to him in a German prison camp — where he wrote the piece in 1940. Despite the conditions of its creation, Messiaen — a minor character in the novel — insisted that the piece was not political, but an abstract effort to transcend the limits of musical time and to glimpse the apocalyptic unity of past, present and future hinted at in the Book of Revelation.

If transmuting that kind of creative endeavor into fiction sounds impossibly lofty, it’s fair to admit that at times, the novel can be exhausting, as minor characters proliferate and pull us down their twisting paths. But it also is exhilarating to join a novelist working at these bracing heights, where no abstraction — not God, not time, not death, not art, not the meaning of life — is out of bounds, yet where all philosophical searching is rooted in human experience, whether sickening or sublime, and rendered with clarity and sympathy.

Scutts is a freelance writer and board member of the National Book Critics Circle.


By Johanna

W.W. Norton.
470 pp. $26.95