A little more than halfway through Sarah Braunstein's debut novel, a character screams in a forest and another character hears it. Braunstein, one of the National Book Foundation's "5 under 35" young authors to watch last year, describes it this way: "The woods did something strange with the sound, broke it into pieces, so it was coming from everywhere at once, so that he could only stand there, in one place, and take it in." That's exactly the feeling evoked by this book; its many voices, broken into parts, come at us from different times and places, and all we can do is listen and take them in.
The novel's most striking feature is its elaborate structure. The book is divided into six parts, each part split into chapters narrated from varying characters' points of view. The backbone of the book is Leonora, a character whose sections lead off each of the book's parts (though this pattern shifts near the book's end). Initially, her disappearance—a fate we learn almost immediately—feels unrelated to the rest of the novel, though the seemingly tangential storyline eventually becomes the basis for the plot surrounding another character, Paul (who changes his name to Pax). The section about another character, Judith, is the most compelling: earlier in the novel, we see Judith as a young girl who's run away from home in search of true passion. She comes back in her section as a married woman with a daughter of her own, but the fears and desires of young Judith are still present and even more sharply drawn in her adult self as she navigates the sad and overwhelmingly lonely life she's fallen into. She and her husband happen to have bought the house in which Paul/Pax grew up—a house he ran away from years earlier to escape his neglectful mother and abusive stepfather—and their stories collide in heartbreaking, desperate fashion.
This intricate web of stories entraps the reader, evoking the same feelings of isolation and disorientation that the characters themselves experience, all the while pushing us to feel compassion for those who search for—and never find—the love they so desperately want for themselves. The novel could've been presented as three stand-alone novellas; in fact, in an interview, Braunstein explains how she wrote each scene out on an index card and then spread those cards across her kitchen in order to "evaluate what each scene was doing." But the effect of weaving the three major threads together gives the events of the book a more inevitable, devastating feel: we are all, in the end, connected by our ability to feel misery and regret.
In the novel's final acts, another character promises to write about Paul/Pax, who's become obsessed with Leonora's disappearance. In describing what he'll write, he says, "What I'm trying to get at is that I won't mention this girl... It's kind of an elaborate distraction. She's a red herring." With these lines Braunstein gives us the key to understanding the true aim of the story, of the voices coming from everywhere at once: to convey, above anything else, the savage reality of despair.