This week’s New York Times Book Review includes Before, During, After by former University of Memphis novelist Richard Bausch among its books of the week. This is an unsurprising development, given that the book is Bausch’s 9/11 novel, one that powerfully depicts the falling of the twin towers and the ripples of that cataclysm across civic and human life. Writing in last week’s NYTBR novelist Kathryn Harrison called the book “an elegantly constructed novel in which the catastrophic destruction of two monumental structures provides the backdrop to the fracture and crumbling of smaller couples.”
Harrison goes on to note, “One of Richard Bausch’s many talents is the forthright ease with which he delivers his characters—and readers—to the gravest questions of love, faith and ultimately God, even as he nimbly hides the answers in plain sight.”
Wendy Smith, writing in The Boston Globe, considers Bausch’s gift for character development, as well, noting that the divisions marked by the title in Before, During, After aren’t strictly those that are created by the terrorist attacks: there’s a personal conflagration at the heart of this novel that is touched by, but not strictly caused by, the terrorist attacks. “These complicated back stories are traced with Bausch’s customary deftness and delicacy, his protagonists placed within a carefully drawn web of relationships that further illuminate their personalities,” Smith writes. “We have a good sense of the fault lines in this loving couple by the time Natasha flies to Jamaica on Aug. 31 for a vacation before their marriage, leaving Michael to attend the wedding of a family friend in New York. They don’t have unusual or insurmountable problems, but their personal weaknesses are about to connect with the forces of history.”
The Washington Post‘s Ron Charles joins in the praise:
There’s nothing exhaustive or documentary about Bausch’s approach; a number of nonfiction books lay out those terrifying days in far greater detail. But “Before, During, After,” his 12th novel, presents an uncanny invocation of what it felt like when our lives split into pre- and post-9/11. It’s not just his selection of iconic TV images and news reports, although they have the creepy familiarity of half-remembered dreams. In the lives of a small group of smart, reflective characters, he also re-creates the anxiety of that rumor-spiked era, the clammy self-consciousness of “going about our normal lives” and especially the banal conversations that circled around the attacks like those helpless helicopters in Manhattan.
As Emily Choate observed in her Chapter 16 review of Before, During, After, “To tackle the subject of 9/11 through the lens of romantic love is a brave choice: any slide into sentimentality would be obscene in the context of those catastrophic events. Bausch avoids this pitfall, portraying Faulk and Natasha with as much toughness as tenderness, a toughness which lends the intimate story an emotional weight that can bear the load of these larger historical events.” Writing in The Seattle Times, Ellen Emry Heltzel echoes the point: “Bausch has found a way to connect the optimism that died that day with the hopes and dreams that we take into our intimate relationships. They can collapse, too. And often we don’t even see it coming.”
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