In order to appreciate this sweet, elegaic, bleak story about the force of true love, you must be willing to overlook a few oddities. Why, for example, do newlyweds Sam Lattimore and Elizabeth Church set up housekeeping in a Halifax hotel? What is it about PhD student Elizabeth’s murder that attracts a famous Scandinavian director to film it? More eerily, is Sam really seeing Elizabeth each night on the beach behind the house to which he’s retired, and what’s with the 11 library books that disappeared from the local branch just after Elizabeth’s death?
You must ignore these questions to some extent in order to enter the world of Howard Norman’s latest novel, but if you do, you’ll be richly rewarded. Told in episodes mostly brief, it’s a tale of requited passion and jealous possession that also captures a time and place (1970s Nova Scotia) without making it seem antiquated or precious. The false notes are few—a thuggish bellman too broadly drawn, a psychiatrist used like a cardboard cutout—among the beautiful passages, which include a poetic recipe for salade Niçoise that will have readers running for the cutting board. Norman succeeds with collage and pastiche on the page, especially with his title, which derives from something the photographer Robert Frank wrote on his prints. When Sam reaches a new and kinder state of existence, we know it’s been hard won, and we miss the smart, lovely Elizabeth just as much as he does.