House of Meetings
(By Martin Amis; Knopf; 256 pages; $23 cloth)
This swift, weird little novel by Martin Amis is his best fiction in years. Two stories pivot on the axis of a profoundly gripping voice. In the background, two brothers fall for a young Jewish woman in Moscow in the period after World War II but before some of Stalin's murderous purges. One is a sensitive poet; the other a pragmatic killer. As the book opens, the loser in this battle for her heart returns to Norlag, the gulag where he spent a dozen-plus years, dredging up old feelings, ruminating on what he expects to get from seeing the source of his deprivation and torture again. His twisting, self-lacerating narrative, we are to believe, is a letter to his step-daughter. As the years have gone on, believing in Amis' fiction has presented more and more hurdles. That a man would write this way to his family—"in a state of permanent lost temper"—seems unlikely, but Amis' prose is worked to such a fine, filthy froth here it is easy to overlook this minor quibble. This is a powerful story about envy, decline and the long-term corrosive effects of crime on the soul, in which brotherhood emerges not a bloodline but a kind of fatal embrace. (EVENT: Amis appears for a booksigning on Jan. 25 at 7:30pm at Kepler's, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park.)
Review by John Freeman
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