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Originally published May 18, 2014 at 6:05 AM | Page modified May 19, 2014 at 9:30 AM

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‘Next Life Might Be Kinder’: a marriage, a murder, a ghost

In Howard Norman’s new novel, “Next Life Might Be Kinder,” a husband has visitations from his dead wife, and the bittersweet story of a marriage unfolds.

Special to The Seattle Times


‘Next Life Might Be Kinder’

by Howard Norman

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 255 pp., $26

With some novels, you enter slowly, like wading into a pond; others are all-in from the first sentence, like a dive off a cliff. Howard Norman’s latest, “Next Life Might Be Kinder,” belongs to the latter category. Its opener: “After my wife, Elizabeth Church, was murdered by the bellman Alfonse Padgett in the Essex Hotel, she did not leave me.” Just try not to keep reading.

It’s a quick but engrossing journey through “Next Life Might Be Kinder,” whose short chapters hurry us through about two and a half years in the life of narrator Sam Lattimore, a novelist living in Nova Scotia in the early 1970s. Things don’t unfold sequentially; we go backward and forward in time, circling around Elizabeth’s murder but never quite alighting there until the final pages. Sam and Elizabeth, who met at an art gallery (the artist had scrawled the book’s title phrase below each of his photographs), fall in love, marry, and live in quirky, sensual bliss in a small apartment at the old hotel, where they love to sit in the lobby and watch life go by.

After her death, less than a year into their marriage, a shattered Sam moves to a remote beachfront cottage — where, at night, he has conversations with Elizabeth as she lines up books by the shore. (“On the beach at night I don’t observe an emotion,” he tells his skeptical therapist. “I see my wife.”) Meanwhile, a movie based on Elizabeth’s murder is being filmed in Halifax, at the Essex itself; the story of a beautiful young woman killed by a mad bellman being catnip to a director. Its very presence — the idea that someone else could presume to tell Elizabeth’s story — infuriates Sam, even as he replays his life with Elizabeth like his own private, perfect movie.

Norman is a Vermont-based author (who spent some of his formative years in Canada) and a two-time National Book Award nominee for “The Northern Lights” and “The Bird Artist.” Here, he elegantly crafts a murder story that isn’t a mystery; a ghost story without shivers. At its heart, this is a bittersweet love story, about the hole left in a life. Sam remembers, in meticulous, writerly detail, various “still lifes” from his time with Elizabeth: a dinner she cooked, what her desk looked like, what was on her bedside table, the outfit she wore to the Lindy classes taught in the hotel ballroom. From these descriptions, Elizabeth comes to life; you can almost smell her fragrance.

Eventually, we come to understand what’s happening on that beach at night; something Sam’s therapist initially calls “an advent of mourning” but that Sam thinks is Elizabeth, existing somewhere between death and life. And we begin to see the book’s intriguing layers: its seemingly tangled timeline is the randomness of Sam’s memories (which, he says, since Elizabeth’s death, “come unbidden and defy chronology”), a novelist here creates a novelist trying to make sense of a story he doesn’t want to write.

Norman pulls off a fascinating balancing act here: the literary page-turner that, when it’s done, you want to retrace his steps; to revisit Sam and Elizabeth during happier days. It’s a poignant look at loss — and at how memories transform into stories, helping us move forward into kinder days.

Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.

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