"The Curfew" by Jesse Ball (Vintage, 195 pages, $14.95)
Some books get described as "rich with detail." "The Curfew" is not one of those — it's the opposite.
But that's good. Jesse Ball has a gift for conveying the complexities of a scary new world in remarkably few words. An example: "These men were not worried in the slightest. But who could they be, to not be worried?"
The story takes place on a single day in an unnamed city in a not-very-pleasant-sounding future, a police state of unwritten rules, violent deaths and abrupt disappearances. The curfew referred to in the title is vague, but menacingly real: "The government's official word on the matter was nonexistent. There was no curfew. There was simply the declaration, GOOD CITIZENS PASS THEIR NIGHTS ABED."
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William Drysdale is an "epitaphorist," (even his job title is a beaut of a word — he helps families come up with just the right words for tombstones) since he can no longer be a violinist; music isn't allowed.
He lives with his young daughter, Molly, who is mute, and keeps his head down to protect her. His wife, Louisa, disappeared some time earlier, and William's only desire is to keep Molly's life as normal and safe as possible. His tender devotion to her manifests itself through small, everyday affections.
But on this day, William runs into an old friend, who invites him to a meeting — a secret, subversive meeting — with the promise of information about what happened to his wife. He dithers briefly, but the pull is too strong. William leaves Molly with the neighbors and sets out, knowing that he might have to break the curfew.
Roughly the second half of the book follows Molly, entertained by the neighbors with a puppet show that Molly helps create. This isn't any puppet show, but the story of Molly's parents, right up to the immediate present. Seeing William and Louisa's history — and fate — through the eyes of a child makes it all the more vivid, and poignant.
Ball's hauntingly spare prose in this brief novel gives his explorations of everyday life, philosophy, rebellion a stark beauty, almost dreamlike, that belies the horrors lurking just underneath the surface of this circumscribed society.
This coupled with the wildly imaginative — and yet not unimaginable — storyline leaves us both heartbroken and hopeful by the end.
As most good novels do.