Lacing a corset is easy. Same with loading a musket or trimming a whale-oil lamp. A determined historical novelist can furnish the physical trappings of any era.
Antique mental equipment, though, is tougher to acquire. Besides, it contradicts our egotistical sense that earlier people were pretty much like us, but in tunics and hoop skirts. And so all too often, we get medieval women espousing sexual liberation or spunky Roman slaves who speak like 21st-century comics.
The best historical fiction knows better. Yes, there's something eternal and universal about the human spirit, but let's see those spirits living and moving and having their being in times that had little sense of, say, racial equality, social mobility or novocaine. What was it like to exist in a now-vanished world whose mores were both more formal and more brutal than our own? One that perceived no demarcation between science and magic? One that assumed the moral superiority of wealth?
"The Maze at Windermere," Gregory Blake Smith's staggeringly brilliant new novel, luxuriates in those demarcations of time. It is an extraordinary demonstration of narrative dexterity. Moving up and down through the strata of history, Smith captures the ever-changing refractions of human desire.
Any summary of this book's complex structure is bound to sound cumbersome, as though too much furniture has been crammed into too small a room. But Smith, who teaches at Carleton College, is doing something preternatural here. Although the entire novel takes place in the little seaside town of Newport, R.I., it contains five distinct stories spread over three centuries. You can expect a little vertigo at first: There are many characters at work in these superimposed plots, and the same few acres look disorientingly different in each period. But Smith cycles through these eras, again and again, from today all the way back to the late 17th century, when witches were being hanged in nearby Salem.
In 2011, a handsome tennis player is sleeping with several women connected to the legendary Windermere mansion. A century earlier, in 1896, a closeted gay dandy schemes to marry the widow who owns that estate. Another story line takes us back a few more decades, when an anguished Henry James is studying the young woman who will become one of his greatest fictional creations. During the American Revolution, a British officer plots to destroy a Jewish merchant by seducing his daughter. And finally, in 1692 an orphaned Quaker girl must negotiate her own way in the coastal village alone.
Separately, their stories are captivating, flush with peril and sexual tension. The tennis player, for instance, imagines he is a decent guy who, despite his best efforts, slips into acting like a gold-digging cad. The British officer is an anti-Semitic monster, a Poe-like character driven to distraction by his own swelling hatred and lust. That Quaker girl waiting for the Light is troubled by the moral implications of owning a slave.
What's even more remarkable are the chameleon shifts in tone and style as Smith jumps from story to story with perfect fidelity to each era. Open to any page at random, and you'll know exactly where and when you are. Feeling slighted, the tennis player thinks, "He was, somehow, in spite of all that, a loser. It didn't matter that . . . he could beat all but forty-six freaking players in the whole freaking world." The chapters purporting to be from young James's journal display the writer's incessant psychological analysis of his own artistic method: "The thing is to see them," he writes, "to see one's characters in all their complexity, all their blind groping, engaged as they must be in the hubbub of connection and courtship and 'getting on' where clarity lies remote, and to represent them without stint, yet without embellishment, to have them feel the beat of their hearts though they may not know for what their hearts beat." That painfully conscientious Quaker girl writes in a late-17th-century style that sounds wholly native to her time: "In the afternoon, I retir'd and pray'd that I might labor toward Wisdom, but felt no Light. I had only my own Confusion, and not only about this present Matter but of my own Life."
The cumulative effect of this carousel of differing voices is absolutely transporting. The novel grows richer as we hear echoes among their stories. The tennis player walks by the cemetery where the Jewish merchant is buried. James's sister has the same name as the heiress in 2011, who once tried to commit suicide in the same manner as the British officer in 1778. A slave in the 17th century must ply her wits as cleverly as an African American artist in the 21st century.
Before our eyes, common themes on race, love and money begin to knot these tales together. Each protagonist is wrestling with the morality of romance, but the calculus of seduction is different in every time frame. They are all, to one degree or another, strategic players moving through the channels of their own social mazes. Baffled by his failings, young James writes, "We each of us strive to understand who we are, why we are here, to love and be loved, and that for all that striving, we are each of us lost in the mystery of our own heart."
In the final section, the divisions between these stories collapse, but by this point in the novel we know these characters, the timbre of their voices, even the grammar of their minds. That familiarity allows Smith to conclude with a mesmerizing work of literary origami, folding the translucent layers of time so tightly that contemporary and previous eras appear to mingle while retaining their respective hues.
Looking up from this remarkable novel, one has an eerie sense of history as a process of continuous erasure and revision. You'll start "The Maze of Windermere" with bewilderment, but you'll close it in awe.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Gregory Blake Smith
Viking. 339 pp. $27