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Northwest Corner, By John Burnham Schwartz

A compelling family story in changing times

John Burnham Schwartz's powerful, fifth novel takes its epigraph – “There are heroes, and there are the rest of us” – from one of his previous works. Reservation Road ended with hit-and-run killer Dwight Arno stewing atop a freezing, New England mountain. In Northwest Corner, we meet him 12 years later, after he's turned himself in, served his time, and moved to California. Dwight manages a sports shop, obsessively cleans and exercises. Beer and baseball offer escape but the arrival of his estranged son sends the past surging up on the present.

Sam Arno has hospitalised a man in a bar fight and his violence, albeit uncharacteristic, shadows a tentative father-son rapport. Dwight feels “shame at not being able to do more for him”. So far, so masculine. But when Sam's mother, Ruth, whisks him back to Connecticut to face up to his actions, the book expands and strong women protagonists emerge. Literary academic Penny's attraction to Dwight is just about believable. Her interests chime with Schwartz's themes but Louise Gluck's poetry feels anomalous in a book which is largely populated by people who don't read. Sam's relationship with Emma, whose brother was run over by Dwight, is implausible. They're drawn together because both were there “when the world went wrong”, but a sex scene in which Emma's desire is compared to her grief is the novel's nadir.

“Let's worry about you,” Ruth tells Sam, even though she's suffering from cancer. When Dwight turns up, she watches the two men bond over baseball, knowing that there's no part for her in their game. Her self-sacrificing might be counterproductive and it's hinted that she's concealing the extent of her illness, so they may soon have to look after themselves. For now, she's around for some overreaching prose: boiling a kettle, she manages “to disarm the apparatus before its shriek can shatter her glass house of repose”. When she runs a bath “bubbles flare to the surface as if breathed into by an invisible glass blower”. Water is clearly a problem but, if Northwest Corner has a hero, it's Ruth.

History is handled with subtlety. In 2006, talk of war, waste and indifference reflects an unforgiving moment. Dwight has escaped the austere world of his parents only to end up somewhere “as sparsely furnished as a frat boy's fridge”. Economic hubris beckons as Ruth is pestered by predatory healthcare companies and Dwight's Mexican boss – the only person in California who knows about his criminal record – expands his business. As Sam's victim, a Serbian petty-criminal, lies in intensive care, it's striking how both Arnos are dependent on characters who are outsiders in America.

You don't need to have read Reservation Road to make the slow-burning, emotional investment that Northwest Corner elicits. An unexpected ending suggests a further sequel and, whether you feel for Schwartz's protagonists or despair at their self-destructiveness, their progress through changing times should prove compelling.