One of the first things you’ll notice about Mark Gluth’s slender and powerful first novel is its apparently direct, no-fat sentence style. ‘Margaret’s sitting at her writing table, then walking downstairs to put a kettle on,’ it begins. ‘A dog walks in the kitchen behind her and yawns.’ But by page three, it’s obvious that the author is up to something much more complex and haunted than his stripped-down writing initially suggests. Soon, we find changes in tense, shifting points of view, dream sequences and other rug-pulling narrative tricks. This is a world in flux, but throughout it remains bolted down by Gluth’s oracular prose and devastating passages about art and mourning.
The book opens with a scene featuring the titular author, Margaret, who completes a final story before her death. The second section follows Beth, an aspiring teen writer who is trying to adapt a story by the late Margaret for the screen, and who later befriends Mira, a young photographer. The final passages return to a particular character in ways that lay waste to any notion of chronology, but Gluth pulls it off, hinting at a possible logic, but ultimately leaving you in his book’s seemingly inescapable cycle of change, love and loss.
Gluth is a sleek writer with a deeply creative command of his cultural references. His book comes embedded with allusions to indie-rock lyrics and Jorge Luis Borges. He has a strong sense of the gothic, and he borrows a few tricks from the European author Agota Kristof’s The Book of Lies, most notably its deceptively simple sentences, its three-part narrative structure, and its tendency to tell a story and later revise it in various mind-bending ways.
What makes Gluth’s book truly cut, though, is its unstoppable emotional heft. His characters attempt to deal with death – and in the end truly face it – through art. ‘I pretended [my] novel was a spell, that there was something hidden in it,’ one character thinks. ‘That it would bring you… back to life.’ These monuments to the dead are by necessity failures, but also triumphs, and so is Gluth’s novel. Another layer in a narrative of layers, it’s a sad book filled with sad books. And it’s strong enough to break your heart.