In sociology, the “small world theory” holds that any two people can be connected to one another along a chain of no more than a few acquaintances (typically six, the fabled “six degrees of separation”). Though the research behind it is at best contentious, there’s something deeply appealing about its logic-defying simplicity, something exciting about what it implies. In a world that can seem vast and alienating, the idea that we’re all much closer than it seems is, at first glance, comforting. The flip side is that our influence may extend further than we realize.
In his second novel, “The Illusion of Separateness,” Simon Van Booy presents a cast of characters who have had a profound effect on one another’s lives, yet cannot see the bonds that link them. He divides his book into six separate narratives, each following a different character through different eras, from the Second World War to the present: Martin, a retirement home caretaker; Mr. Hugo, a disfigured Wehrmacht veteran; Sébastien, a lovelorn young boy; John, whose B-24 bomber is shot out of the sky over France; Amelia, a blind museum curator and John’s granddaughter; and Danny, a budding filmmaker. Van Booy presents their stories in a nonlinear fashion, shifting back and forth from character to character, decade to decade.
Van Booy’s premise — that we are all linked in ways we may not fully understand, and that our smallest actions can have a significant effect on the lives of others — is fairly banal, and its execution verges on overly sentimental. He builds to the scenes in which his characters cross paths with great ceremony, yet these intersections are the book’s weakest moments. While the plot seems to aspire to present an overarching sense of meaning, Van Booy never quite drives it home. For some, the significance is inscrutable, as when John and Mr. Hugo engage in a tense, but ultimately inconsequential standoff in a field in war-torn France. Others, like when Martin cradles the dying Mr. Hugo in the book’s opening pages, seem like contrivances meant to give the narrative the appearance of structure and meaning.
These pivot points serve only as distraction from Van Booy’s masterful prose. His characters are dazzling when they’re not being forced to support the wobbly plot. From minimalistic sentences he wrings out maximum impact, stripping away artifice and elaboration in favor of stark, emotional clarity and honesty. They feel like short stories unto themselves, as in Mr. Hugo’s bleak recitation of his experiences after his questionable release from a rehabilitation hospital: “Driven to Gare du Nord. Sat in Gare du Nord. Slept in Gare du Nord. Beaten in Gare du Nord.” However thin the plot, the skill with which Van Booy is able to convey complex emotion without sacrificing brevity more than makes up for it.
The Amelia chapters, in particular, are replete with beautiful imagery, as Van Booy explores the sensory world of someone without sight in rich, poetic flourishes. “February is quiet except for the wind,” she thinks, “which rushes through hollows in the roof. Everything has a voice. Our house was once a flock of trees in the wilderness.” She meditates on her own mortality, musing that one day there will remain “nothing but the fragrance of our lives in the world, as on a hand that once held flowers.” Her inner monologue provides the book’s most coherent, and most compelling narrative, and the other chapters both pale in its shadow and bask in its reflected glow.
Though the overarching story never quite jells, great talent can be found at the heart of “The Illusion of Separateness,” and Van Booy impresses with his ability to make even the smallest moments seem grand.Michael Patrick Brady, a writer from Boston, can be reached at mike@michaelpatrickbrady