Although called a novel, A Geography of Secrets by Frederick Reuss is really two separate novellas with common themes. The stories twine around each other but never really connect. Both are enticing character studies, with layered ideas about family, marriage, friendship, and responsibility.
The first story concerns an unnamed mapmaker seeking to discover the secrets of his father’s professional history. He delves into government archives and travels to Switzerland to learn if his father was a CIA operative undercover in the diplomatic corps. His search takes a personal turn that leads to a melancholy ending.
The second story follows a government defense analyst, Noel Leonard, facing demons after his error causes the bombing of a school in Afghanistan. Wrestling with his conscience, but unable to discuss the situation honestly with his wife, supervisors, or his priest, Leonard’s marriage and career break under the strain. Whether they can be repaired is left uncertain in the end – which readers may find either tantalizingly or frustratingly ambiguous.
Comparisons to Graham Greene are justified as Reuss captures a similar sense of moody isolation and human frailty. His writing is elegant without getting in the way of the ideas. Some of his descriptions are particularly captivating:
I felt a pang of shame for the seedy atmosphere that had overtaken the room. . . . It was also Nicole, distraughtly puffing away at her cigarettes, the disorder of the apartment, the dreary winter weather, the shabbiness of lives foreshortened by cocktails and weltschmerz.
That is terrific. "Lives foreshortened by cocktails and weltschmerz" is a novel in itself.
Some readers may be disappointed with the soft landing of the ending, or that the two stories remain separate. But for the writing and the levels of insight plumbed in the stories, the book is well worth reading.
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