Penguin £7.99

Carry the One, By Carol Anshaw

Out of a fatal accident comes a patchwork quilt of changed lives

Over the course of a quietly successful career, Chicago novelist Carol Anshaw has long explored how one event or choice can colour an entire life. Her 1992 debut, Aquamarine, imagined alternative outcomes for its feisty heroine - an Olympic swimmer - while this latest work kicks off with a wedding and an accident.

It's a hot summer day in 1983 when Matt and Carmen exchange vows in a backyard in rural Wisconsin. The well-oiled guests sing along to authentic folk ditties, while the heavily pregnant bride sits tight hoping to miss "the mortifying dances segment". Back inside, her sister Alice is being bedded by a woman called Maud - "So far, this was the best moment of her life" - and her brother Nick, dressed in a silk gown, is handing out magic mushrooms to the younger cousins. A few hours later and a car-load of these stoned guests drive into the path of a ten-year-old girl, killing her outright.

Over the next 25 year years - the novel ends with Obama's 2008 election victory - each passenger in the car will re-live that night, wondering how they might have re-written history. It's a Big Chill-style scenario in which some members of this tightly-bound group prove more vulnerable than others.

Anshaw's forte as a writer is to show how most of us stumble through life without the help of a road map. Cutting between stories, we watch as these liberal-leaning questers experiment with various personae and emotional props, from drugs to obsessive relationships. Early on, Carmen's husband leaves her for the 19-year-old babysitter while Nick, a brainy astronomer, turns to prostitutes and more drugs. Alice, the most successful sibling, makes her name as an artist with a series of portraits of the long-dead girl.

Reading Anshaw is like being submerged under a patchwork quilt of gorgeous detail. Every nuance of her characters' behaviour is beautifully accounted for, but as individual dynamic creations they fail make the heart beat faster. In Anshaw's hands, this generation of navel-gazers prove a gently soporific lot.

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