Books: Dancing with death

Sylvia Brownrigg counts up the gains from a tale of losses

The Short History of a Prince

by Jane Hamilton

Doubleday, pounds 9.99

The American novelist Jane Hamilton is especially alert to life's weighted moments, those suspenseful pauses which mark the haunted place between "before" and "after". Her painful, compelling book A Map of the World began on the day Alice Goodwin, looking away from playing children, inadvertently allowed her best friend's toddler to walk into the pond and drown - a tragedy which had further, devastating consequences.

Hamilton's new novel opens on the morning a suburban mother finds a growth on her son Daniel's neck. It marks the onset of the Hodgkin's disease that will kill him. The novel, however, is not Daniel's story but that of his younger brother Walter, whose great grief in his 15-year-old life is to want things he can't have: to be a great ballet dancer, and to share his love for the divinely handsome Mitch, who dates their mutual friend Susan.

The narrative, which takes time to find its pace, alternates between 1972 - the year Walter, Susan and Mitch go through their changes as Daniel deteriorates - and 1995, when the aimless Walter decides to return to Wisconsin after living in New York. Returning home involves re-evaluation. His job, teaching high-school English, brings back his adolescent doubts and passions, while attending his family's gatherings at their lake house raises questions about the relation of the past to the future, of love to fidelity, of family loyalties to financial gain.

Hamilton's structure favours emotional and intellectual reflection over plot, which creates a problem in the first third of the book, when her touch is uncharacteristically heavy. She has Walter looking up his name in the dictionary to discover it means "to roll, to be tossed on the wave... His name, in any form, did not portend an easy life." Walter's exuberant passion for dance is detailed and vivid (Hamilton trained as a dancer), but she can't resist explaining that "If life for Walter was composed in part of confusion, shame and deception, the ballet was order, dignity and forthright beauty." Walter's urban snobbery towards his more provincial younger sister (born after Daniel's death), and to Midwestern tastes generally, also palls.

The novel comes alive, and discovers its humour, in the account of the unhappy teenaged triangle of Susan, Mitch and Walter. Initially Walter seems doomed to be forever the third wheel. The story turns when Susan falls for the ailing Daniel, leaving the dumped golden boy Mitch to cry on Walter's shoulder - or, more accurately, trade stoned late-night sexual encounters with him. Hamilton's funny, acute descriptions of Walter's devotion - "He whispered `Mitch' into his pillow; he opened his closet and said it louder; he sang it softly in the shower" - are nicely saved from pathos by the 38-year-old Walter's ironic reflections on them. That Susan and Walter have a deep friendship as adults, trading emotional confidences in the way gay men and straight women do, is a fitting emotional justice.

As Daniel and the novel approach their end, Hamilton's narrative gains emotional power and her community pulls together. We never know Daniel, but we come to know his distraught, distracted mother; Walter's wonderfully mean butch aunt Sue, who spotted a kindred spirit in Walter and took him to his first ballet; and the irascible nosy neighbour Mrs Gamble, on whom Mitch and Walter play an inspired prank.

Hamilton's fiction is poised somewhere between the sweeping ambition of Jane Smiley and the suburban tales of Alice Hoffman. Her oddly particular gift in this and earlier novels is to train a clear eye on the way an early death transforms the lives around it, and not always nobly.

Walter says to Susan. "It seems to me that grieving the way we have is a luxury, of our time and place, that it's a privilege and a burden of our era." Understanding that burden and that privilege is Hamilton's graceful achievement.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Life and Style
Powdered colors are displayed for sale at a market ahead of the Holi festival in Bhopal, India
techHere's what you need to know about the riotous occasion
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
News
Details of the self-cleaning coating were published last night in the journal Science
science
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
News
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant / Credit Controller

    £16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are an award-winning digit...

    Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

    Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

    £10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

    £17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable