The Illusion of Separateness

  • Simon Van Booy
  • Harper
  • 224 pp.

Six people, unaware of their connection, are the center of an extraordinary ensemble tale of love and nurture.

In 2009, when Simon Van Booy won the prestigious Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, he was praised for his “consistently positive and optimistic approach to examining the travails of Human experience.” These qualities are on full display in Van Booy’s new novel, The Illusion of Separateness, where Van Booy imbues with grace a cast of characters that includes an American bomber pilot shot down in Nazi-occupied France, a German infantryman with half his face blown off, and a Jewish infant rescued from a burning house not far from the charred remains of his mother, a bucket in her hands.

The Illusion of Separateness opens in 2010 in the Starlight Retirement Home, where Hollywood stars live out their last years under the loving care of Martin, an ageless orderly who tirelessly meets their every need. Adopted as a baby by a young Parisian baker, Martin learns only in college in America that he is Jewish, a discovery that leads him to search every face for clues to his identity, every photograph “a mirror.” It is a beguiling opening, but not one that stands still, for a second character soon joins the aging stars. He is Mr. Hugo, the man with half a face. From this beginning an extraordinary ensemble tale emerges through the lives of six characters.

The story is broken up into 15 chapters that range in time from 1939 to 2010 but are not presented in chronological order, keeping readers on their toes as they attempt to construct a coherent account. Although each character narrates one or more chapters, the same people and events appear throughout the book, albeit from different perspectives. Separateness is indeed an illusion. Action often takes place in the interstices between one sentence and the next, endowing this slender novel with a depth and breadth that belies its scant page count.

The narrative spine is based on a true story. John Bray, the name Van Booy gives to his real-life model, is an American B-42 pilot whose plane was shot down in France in 1944. Through grit and the bold generosity of strangers, Bray makes his way to safety, at which point he telegraphs his beloved young wife, “JUST BACK FROM THE MOST FABULOUS VACATION ON THE CONTINENT.” Bray’s story is paralleled by that of Mr. Hugo, also separated from his troops, who gets his name when he is found in Paris, his face half gone, his sole possession a novel by Victor Hugo.

The account of these two men as they stagger across war-torn Europe rivals in intensity scenes in Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Surrounding Van Booy’s two central characters are Martin, the Jewish orphan; Sébastien, a dreamy French boy who discovered the hulk of an old plane deep in his father’s farmland; Amelia, John Bray’s blind granddaughter, who puts together exhibitions for the blind at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA); and Danny, a famous Hollywood director, half-Nigerian, half English, whom Mr. Hugo befriended as a child in Manchester, England.

Plot and character are so interwoven that it is difficult to describe the storyline without giving away too much. As an insight into Van Booy’s skill, however, consider the following. In an early chapter titled “Sébastien, Saint-Pierre, France, 1968,” the young Sébastien, on the cusp of manhood, wants to hug Hayley “so tightly that she becomes a part of him.” He hopes to win her one afternoon by sharing the most secret thing he can offer — the “iron skeleton” he found in the woods. But Sébastian’s hopes are dashed; Maman is taking Hayley to the dentist.

Thus, sadly, ends Sébastien’s only chapter. But later, in an Amelia chapter dated 2010, we learn that Hayley and Sébastien Dazin of St. Pierre, France, have sent MoMA a photo depicting a bomber they found as children in the woods behind their farm. Not only do close readers — I missed it first time around — realize that Hayley and Sébastien have married, but when Amelia mentions this photo to her grandfather John — a photo that, being blind, she cannot see but is told about — she describes it as being just like the plane he flew, both she and John unaware that it is John’s very plane.

Instances of grace suffuse The Illusion of Separateness. When two wounded enemy soldiers meet among a mass of dead soldiers, each with his hand on a gun, one “foraged in his pocket and unwrapped a caramel he had been saving,” pushing it through the other’s lips. The second then sat up and pulled out some “dried meat and a bread roll,” dipping the bread in a puddle and breaking it in two pieces, an unmistakable enactment of the ritual of holy communion.

Sentimental? What keeps the novel from sentimentality is that the characters throughout are unaware of the connections. It is we who can contemplate unseen forces at work in the world. The “communion” that brought these two enemy soldiers together on the battlefield goes far beyond that one act, for The Illusion of Separateness is more than a war story. It is a layered love story, a book about nurture, which explores relationships between parents and children and adults of various persuasions.

This taut novel moves along with seeming perfection until the end, when in a long chapter entitled “Mr. Hugo, France, 1944,” the last two pieces are put in place. These pieces are startling and well worth the wait. Imagine climaxing a story that began in 2010 in the year 1944. But these final pieces seem rushed and unnecessarily convoluted. Van Booy could have taken more time to bring his readers along. He had space to spare. Unlike Samuel Johnson, who famously quipped about Paradise Lost, “None ever wished it longer,” I wished The Illusion of Separateness longer. I could have read on and on.

Harriet Douty Dwinell, a Washington writer and frequent contributor to The Washington Independent Review of Books, has long been fascinated by World War II.

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