Sam Lattimore sits in the office of Dr. Nissensen in his late-19th-century townhouse, one of the oldest buildings in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Sam wants to talk about Elizabeth, his dead wife, and her painful secret. Lately he senses there’s something that Elizabeth wants to tell him, something to do with how she was brutally murdered and what really happened before Alfonse Padgett, the bellman at the Halifax Hotel, shot and killed her. Elizabeth wants to record the incident from her point of view.
Unable to cope with the shocking suddenness of his wife’s death, Sam now leads a solitary life and has little contact with the outside world, apart from occasionally having dinner with his concerned neighbors Philip and Cynthia. He’s plagued by visions of Elizabeth. He sees her on the beach late at night, lining up her books about two or three inches apart. He remembers their hotel in Halifax, when they set up in their apartment in Room 58 and where Alfonse, “handsome though a bit gaunt,” began to make his evil intentions known.
Still grieving, Sam is desperate to keep Elizabeth nearby. His visions of her are symptomatic of the pervasive lack of connection to himself or his surroundings. He aches from the lack of touching her, recalling how her rich, auburn hair was like Veronica Lake‘s. For Sam, everything happens in context, from the wretchedness of being alone to Elizabeth’s apparition and to the pain of actually losing her, which ultimately distracts him from the truth that she isn’t really there.
Setting his story in 1972, Norman’s themes include loss, the heartache of abandonment, unconditional love, and the need for forgiveness. The novel is packed with vivid descriptions of Halifax and Vogler’s Cove, where Sam walks the beach by night, cafés by day. This is a private, insular community, naturally suspicious of the hotshot director who has come to the region to make a movie about Sam and Elizabeth. The director wants to obtain answers—the most intimate secrets of their relationship—while seeking to remind Sam that he will do justice to their lives together and their young, tragic marriage.
The atmosphere in the story is moody without fetishizing mood. Never too graphic or explicit (the violence against Elizabeth is more suggested and reported), the tale creates an ongoing sense of dread that nevertheless is at times difficult to bear. Some sections feel a bit under-plotted, particularly the conversations Sam has with Elizabeth’s ghost, though they have the effect of creating a commensurate intimacy.
Highly structured and poetic, at its best this tale is similar in style and content to Gerard Woodward’s August. Norman’s unfolding plot reflects Sam’s memories forever etched in the passage of time. The narrative is written in such a way that even Sam’s small gestures can lead, randomly and somehow inevitably, to havoc. If this were a tapestry, some sections would indeed be ambiguous.
Though some readers will object to the deliberative pacing, Norman’s exploration of loss, the persistence of grief and the bonds of human connection are quite powerful despite the novel itself being a little dull and underwhelming. The simple recounting of domestic incidents, which at first served Sam so well, no longer seems adequate to handle the unaccountable threat of disaster and of death.
This is a tremendously introspective book, one which demonstrates (much like life) that there are no easy answers. The novel also has a sort of retro noir feel that reflects its storyboard murder mystery, along with Sam’s musings over the happier moments of his marriage. Norman embalms his tale with heart and great dialogue, and we’re willing to search for the next connecting thread that will somehow allow Sam to finally find closure.