It’s hard to know where to start with a book like Place. I enjoyed it, that much is certain. It brought me to tears a couple times, that’s certain too. But what is it about? There are clearly a few levels that this book can be read at, and that makes it tricky to pin down.
On the face of it, Place is the story of two fairly responsible and well-to-do adults—one of whom just happens to have a penchant for disappearing, literally, for a few seconds at a time—trying to find more happiness together than they experienced with their first families. With a backdrop of homemaking, cross-country road trips, and the “enduring and baffling weirdness” of New Mexico, they struggle with their past, but live for the future. Except that a particularly tragic piece of the past is refusing to let go.
A less ambitious writer might have left things there, but White underpins the whole thing with a hybrid structure of computer science, physics, psychology, and religion, that actually succeeds at making the reader question what is real, what could be real, and why we think we’re so sure about all this.
The novel follows a fairly linear course over a period of several years, from the dot-com bust to the post-9-11 age. There’s a little bit of jumping around in time, though, which was the source of my major complaint – it was sometimes quite hard to figure out when and in what order things were happening. And even a few of the linear jumps in time seemed oddly placed, skipping over events and actions that felt like they should have been given some more attention.
On the other hand, the fact that what I really wanted was to read more about the daily life of these reasonably normal people is a real testament to White’s skill as a storyteller and author. His sense of pacing, suspense, and dramatic tension is spot-on, and on top of that his world and characters drew me in to the point where I would have happily read about them even if there wasn’t something weird going on.
Ned White’s earlier novel The Very Bad Thing was published by Viking Penguin, and it’s easy to see why his style would attract mainstream attention. His writing feels effortless, even when he’s treading dangerously close to the weird, new-agey themes that render many similar novels unreadable to a wide audience. There is never any melodrama, even when the book touches on issues that lend themselves to over-writing. White clearly realizes that issues with inherent emotional weight (9-11, child abandonment, the fear of losing a loved one) can be much more effective when the obvious is left unsaid. All in all, a truly pleasurable piece of literary fiction.
Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/2024 (first 30% available free)