Before, During, After by Richard Bausch, book review: Love in a confused climate


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The Independent Culture

The events of 9/11 have inspired some brilliant writing about that day and its aftermath – Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children, Amy Waldman's The Submission and Sue Miller's The Lake Shore Limited among the most notable.

Richard Bausch's new novel – his twelfth – has most in common with Miller's book, using the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon to illuminate a crisis in the lives of one couple and their immediate circle.

Michael Faulk, a divorced Episcopalian priest, and Natasha Barrett, a senator's aide, meet in Washington in the spring of 2001. Their courtship is swift, joyous and wholly natural: despite a 16-year age gap both seek to inhabit the others' loneliness – Faulk has lost his vocation and resigns from his mission; Natasha intends to revive her original ambition to be a painter of watercolours. Their hopes are modest; the future seems infinite. They set a wedding date for the autumn of that year.

The spring is soft, tender: this is the prelapsarian; "before" a sharp contrast with the country's sudden slide into chaos and terror some months later. When 9/11 occurs, Michael is in lower Manhattan for a friend's wedding; Natasha in Jamaica on a long-planned holiday with an older female companion. For a day- and-a-half the phone lines are jammed and Natasha cannot reach Michael. Catastrophically, she suffers a violent assault in the drunken, blurred hours which follow the televised news of the attacks.

Bausch's grip on these parallel narratives is firm and insistent at this point: Michael's odyssey by train with fellow ghost travellers escaping New York to Washington, then on to Memphis where he and Natasha plan to make a home near her only relative, her grandmother; the holidaymakers trapped in their idyllic island paradise with no recourse but to drink in blind panic and wait for the first flights out. The confusion and fear wafts off the page.

The final section deals with a country in dislocation and a couple jolted out of their previous easy intimacy. Natasha cannot bring herself to tell Michael about her ordeal; her body resists him; he suspects infidelity. Doubt and mistrust escalate: Michael feels spiritual inadequacy as a former priest unable to console in the wake of a nation's grief; the traumatic loss of Natasha's parents, in an accident when she was three, returns to overwhelm her. The characters are not best served by the forced, repetitive dialogue in the later chapters, yet Bausch redeems the book's dramatic early promise with an ending that goes deep into the heart of forgiveness and faith, as Natasha and Michael face a "new, terrible reality" that is both personal and political.