The events of September 11th, 2001 have spawned scores of novels, some subtle – Paul Auster’s The Brooklyn Follies ends with the redemption of his main protagonist who walks out into the early morning of that bright, blue-skyed autumn day, full of hope – some not so much. Fourteen years later, it seems that this particular vein of fiction is far from exhausted. Richard Bausch’s new novel, set as its title suggests in the months before, during and after the attacks, explores it most effectively, drawing parallels between the personal and the political. Michael and Natasha are newly in love, soon to be married. On the day of the attacks she’s in Jamaica with a friend, he’s in New York for a wedding. What follows is devastating for them both.
Michael and Natasha meet at a Washington party in April. She has just left her post as a senatorial aide and is recovering from an affair; he has recently resigned from the Episcopal ministry after twenty years. When they find they both hail from Memphis, a strong connection is formed which soon turns to passionate love. Within a few months plans have been made – a return to Memphis for both of them where they will set up house, then marry. In early September, Natasha travels to Jamaica for the holiday her friend Constance arranged for them both many months ago. It is there that she learns about the terrorists’ attack, knowing that Michael is staying close to the Twin Towers. Distraught and unable to contact him, Natasha shrugs off Constance’s reassurance then irritation, walking alone on the beach while her friend drinks herself into a stupor. Unscathed by the attacks, Michael takes the long, strange journey home by train, travelling through a country whose population is both grief-stricken and furious. When they are reunited, Natasha is inexplicably distant and emotionally volatile; Michael is at a loss to understand quite why. What had at first seemed the beginning of a happy, loving life together full of hope becomes poisoned with mistrust – Natasha has been raped but has told no one.
Bausch’s descriptions of the post-9/11 shock, grief and paranoia that seized Americans after the attacks are extraordinarily vivid, both in his depiction of tourists stranded in Jamaica drinking themselves to distraction and of Michael’s train journey in which strangers exchange intimacies and talk of a country changed forever. The aftermath of Natasha’s rape, her guilt, shame and inability to talk to anyone about it ring all too true while Michael’s bewilderment, anguish and the beginnings of his mistrust are poignantly described. Two appalling events have taken place, both very different in scale: the one, dramatic and devastating for so many with such far-reaching effects; the other deeply personal but equally devastating for Michael and Natasha. It’s a brave man who tackles the subject of rape but Bausch succeeds in wrenching our hearts for Natasha for whom everything has changed. This is a profoundly involving novel – quite cerebral at times, but also emotionally engaging. Having made a start with Peace a few years ago, it’s to be hoped that Atlantic will publish Bausch’s extensive backlist here in the UK.