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Review: The Illusion of Separateness, By Simon van Booy

Beauty lies buried under brutal history

Simon van Booy's reputation can only grow with this, his second novel. The title might not sing, but the book does: ancient songs – to borrow the idea from a vignette from within it – about beauty buried under brutal histories.

The novel, which is in part based on a true story, opens in the Starlight Retirement Home in Los Angeles, where an attendant, Martin, is mopping the floor. As he swooshes, the narrator winds back through how he got there, via an LA bakery, a marriage in Pasadena, and a childhood in war-time Paris.

The one thing Martin doesn't know is how he came to be. He was placed in the arms of a woman in the Second World War, and she stepped into a baker's shop to find food for him. Woman and baker became his adoptive parents, they explained when he was old enough to understand. Later, the reason why becomes clear, when a girl, with whom he is in bed, asks why he is circumcised when other European men she has met are not.

Half a century later, the old folks in the retirement home all have their stories too and Monsieur Martin, as he is known because of his French accent, is looking forward to meeting an incoming resident, Mr Hugo, to ask him his.

The elderly man arrives, his head severely disfigured, and Martin wonders whether he had fought in the war. But as Mr Hugo walks towards the tea party laid out in honour of his arrival, his legs crumple and he falls down dead.

One story is curtailed at its beginning, the other at its end, no connection ever made. But, as the title tells you, this is just an illusion.

Van Booy's previous writing, including Everything Beautiful Began After and his collection of short stories The Secret Lives of People in Love have been noted for their tenderness. It is here too, almost en passant against the bigger history.

In a detail from another strand in the book, a pilot, John, recalls how his father ran a diner during the Depression in Long Island. Men, with their wives and children, would suddenly start searching their pockets when the bill arrived, apologising for having lost their wallet somewhere. "Next time, then," his father would say, protecting the men's fragile dignity. Years later, a cheque would arrive for the exact amount of the meal. The small detail vibrates for pages later.

There's a crispness to Van Booy's writing, sentences pared to their bare elements, but the clarity leaves a window for something else. A typical description near the opening of one chapter goes: "Unwashed sheets hang in the rain. They smell of salt from the sea." It is the beginnings of poetry.

The Illusion of Separateness is a slim novel and a subtle one. It tramps through the muddy fields and dark spirits of the Second World War, but it carries you with it effortlessly, leaving the reader with a rare feeling of lightness at the end.