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Book Review: No. 4 Imperial Lane

By (August 20, 2015) No Comment

No. 4 Imperial Laneno. 4 imperial lane

by Jonathan Weisman

Twelve, 2015

David Heller, the young exchange student in Jonathan Weisman’s ambitious debut novel No. 4 Imperial Lane, makes a decision many a young man – fictional and otherwise – has made, to wildly varying results: he lets love lead his location. In his case, with his student visa in the 1980s of Thatcher’s England about to expire and compel him to travel back to his tragedy-daunted family in the States, he meets a young woman named Maggie, falls in love, and decides to do whatever it takes to stay in England. This means scrabbling with an employment agency to get a job and a work visa, and the job is at the No. 4 Imperial Lane of the book’s title, as a live-in caregiver for a paraplegic named Hans Bromwell.

Hans lives with his sister Elizabeth and her daughter Christina in a large flat crammed with the expensive detritus of the North Downs estate they lost soon after their fiery MP father killed himself. The brother and sister had an offbeat symbiotic relationship while growing up (“Hans, much loved and totally unappreciative, and Elizabeth, not loved much at all”), and she’s devoted to the shriveled, immobile figure on the day bed, she doesn’t let herself be bullied by him – so that job tends to fall to the live-in assistants, which accounts for why No. 4 Imperial Lane has gone through so many of them over the years.

At first, David is certain he, too, will make a quick exit. Hans, he notices immediately, is not a saintly, Hollywood-style cripple; he’s caustic and casually bigoted, lancingly smart but completely embittered. Elizabeth is his counterpart in many ways, practical and down-to-earth but with a slightly clueless air about her that sharpens at the strangest times and for the most seemingly random of reasons, as David discovers early on:

To watch Elizabeth prepare dinner was a marvel. It focused her mind. I had been so broke for the past two months, I was reduced to buying rice and Brussels sprouts in bulk at the Brighton farmers market, just off the lorry depot. I’d prepare them with curry powder, or chili powder, or cream and cornstarch, or tomato sauce. It didn’t much help. It was still Brussels sprouts and rice. But just when I had grown despondent over my poverty diet, I found myself watching this strange, flighty woman patting down the duck she had filleted and trussed, preparing a citrus medley for the sauce, reducing it, baking, broiling. The smell was overwhelming.

Almost before he really notices it, David is enmeshed in the offbeat family life of the house, continuing to learn the ways of his host country, and picking up on the subtleties of his employers (including the nuances of their speech: “The trick was never to end questions with a rising tone,” he realizes at one point, “The most inquisitive phrase always sounded like a statement. It’s no wonder the British never sought any answers from the world. Their language and tone offered only advice and opinion”). In a series of vodka-lubricated kitchen table confessionals, Elizabeth unfolds for David the story of the Bromwell family, and of her own surprisingly dramatic past. While on vacation, she fell in love with a dashing young Portuguese doctor (“They had a lot in common – overbearing, aristocratic fathers, aimless childhoods, a love of literature that threatened to blot out too many other pursuits”) and followed him back to war-torn Portuguese Guinea when he’s drafted.

A good deal of Weisman’s novel – much too much of it, most readers will likely think – is sunk into telling this background-story for Elizabeth, her doctor husband, and their daughter in their rather stagily fin-de-siecle imperial setting, just as there are rather too many plodding feints in David’s story toward its 1980s setting, with paragraphs like this one dropped like rocks into the chicken broth:

There were other weighty matters of the day to ponder: how much soap to apply to make your Mohawk (“Mohican” in British parlance) stand boldly erect even in the sweaty heat of Brighton’s seaside clubs; the proper amount of eyeliner to prevent tripping from brooding goth to pure poseur, from Robert Smith to A Flock of Seagulls; whether Ian Curtis had been dead long enough to accept New Order as a respectable-if-inferior successor to Joy Division; if overturning Minis in the car park after the student pub closed for the night was an act of political defiance or simple drunken stupidity.

Fortunately, there are comparatively few such passages for readers to Google their way through, and both the 1980s scene-setting and the extensive decamping for the African coast are in any case somewhat predictable debut-novelist missteps – nervous fussing with atmosphere signaling a worry that the main emotional thrust of the story might not be dramatic enough. This is certainly understandable – Hans can’t even move, after all – but Weisman need not have worried; his evocation of the friendship that develops between Hans and David is all but flawless, a complicated and resonantly moving thing that gets in amongst the emotions far more effectively than any dozen scenes set on the Senegalese border. It’s the story of this friendship that makes the novel’s concluding act veritably glow with conviction, and it’s that concluding act that will stick with readers long after they’ve closed the book.