Little Brown, £13.61
When Anita Shreve's 'The Pilot's Wife' was featured on Oprah Winfrey’s book club in 1999, it propelled her onto numerous literary top ten lists. This gargantuan publicity injection made the publishers happy but such high-profile plaudits from the chat show high priestess surely also put serious pressure on a author increasing expectations for her future work? Fortunately Shreve has risen to the challenge. Her latest book, 'The Last Time They Met', is a haunting tale detailing the remembrance of things past.
The book's narrative structure is chronologically inverted, beginning at a present day writer's conference. Poetess Linda Fallon comes face to face with Thomas Janes, a man who has impacted hugely on her despite flitting in and out of her life over four decades. When the book begins both are in their fifties, single and, like most people, have not escaped the indiscriminate traumas that life can offer. Linda is a widow, with an alcoholic son, and Thomas lost his only daughter in an accident when she was five or six. Shreve builds up the rising tension and shock that both parties feel at this unexpected reunion. We learn of a tangled, emotional past entwining the two, of painful separation, of lifelong interconnection and the cruel hand that fate has dealt. Their residual passion has not subsided and but their chaotic paths have cast a huge shadow on both their lives.
Shreve uses location like an additional character; it has a central connection to the book's story. Thomas and Linda's lives are set against a variety of geographical backdrops, each mirroring the cyclical nature of their emotions. Their interaction with each other is painted onto the accompanying landscape. The book begins in a rainy US town where they rediscover each other after twenty-six years; it then moves to Africa, where most of the story is fleshed out; and the final section details their teenage trysts in suburban America. Each location represents forgiving acceptance, consummate passion and youthful innocence respectively. Africa dripping with heat, humidity and tribalism extracts the most potent passion from both, and their tempestuous affair is echoed in the turbulent political background of 1970’s Kenya.
'The Last Time They Met' is a love story that draws together a myriad of issues and themes to challenge the reader. Passion and forgiveness are juxtaposed with regret and deceit. Her fervour for words and language is untainted by verbosity, holding the reader's attention throughout. Shreve draws on her own time spent as a journalist in Kenya, and captures well the simultaneous beauty and tragedy of the African landscape beset by disease and corruption. There's no doubting Shreve's mastery of words and 'The Last Time they Met' is as beautifully descriptive as it is engaging.