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The Sorrows of an American by Siri Hustvedt
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Mar 12, 2009

it was ok
Read in May, 2008

Even literature lovers might be hard-pressed to recognise the name Siri Hustvedt at first glance. But append the title "wife of Paul Auster", and its' likely that lightbulbs will go off.

This is unfortunate for the American writer, whose novels -- New York-based psychological and philosophical dramas -- are often fiercely praised by critics.

The central theme of her latest novel, Sorrows Of An American, is captured in the books opening sentence: "My sister called it the 'year of secrets,' but when I look back on it now, I've come to undertsand that it was a time not of what was there, but if what wasn't."

Indeed, the unknown and speculations of what it could be is what torments narrated our narrator, a middle-aged, freshly-divorced psychiatrist named Erik Davidsen. He is sorting out the papers of his late father when he comes across a mysterious letter, asking her father to keep an unknown secret for the unknown female writer.

Meanwhile, his sister Inga is having some mystery letter problems of her own. The lesser-known widow of a famous author and scriptwriter (whose surreal plots sound suspiciously similiar to Auster's), she has discovered that her beloved husband once had an affair with the Edie Sedgwick-like-actress who starred in one of his films. The actress claims that her child is his, and is keen to sell a series of love letters he had written to her.

Then there are the doctored photographs left on Erik's doorstep by the estranged ex-boyfriend of Miranda, the attractive single mother who rents an apartment in Erik's brownstone. An art project involving defaced and obliterated figures, it is sinister in appearance but obscure in meaning.

Though the novel has political overtones, with several anecdotes involving September 11, the Iraq war, and immigration, its tone and focus is ultimately introspective. The Davidsen sibling's troubles are interspersed with accounts of several of Erik's patients -- known, case study style, as Mr T., Ms L. etc -- whose faceless woes serve to highlight the extent to which people are often divorced from the understanding our own dreams and motives.

Although the eventual resolution of the various mini-mysteries ends up feeling somewhat anti-climatic, the message, it seems, is that people are often not who you imagine, or want, them to be.

The author has a gift for characterisation, as in the case of one of the supporting characters, with whom she treads that fine line between mockery and affection, with often hilarious results.
Her descriptions of him convey the absurdity of his misplaced sense of self-importance, before she redeems him in a final triumphant scene, the full effect of which is only able to be appreciated by reading the relevant passages.

The meditative nature of the novel doesn't end with the story. In the acknowledgements at the back of the book, she reveals that the extracts from the diaries of Erik's dad are, barring name substitions, actual extracts from the diary of her own late father.
Meanwhile, a short, poignant newspaper obituary about an estranged uncle, who froze to death while selling pencils in the street, is a word-for-word reproduction of an article about her own uncle.

Indeed, whether you think of her as Auster's wife or as a writer in her own right, the fact that this is a personal, but not autobiographical, novel raises a final question about our perceptions of people, and their ultimate unknowability.
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