Christopher Barzak, The Love We Share Without Knowing

Cover Art

I’ve been letting my blog slide again. This is mostly due to general tiredness. I get the impression that the periods when I don’t write much are also the periods when I don’t think as deeply or concentrate as well, so I’m trying to restart my brain. I think it could use the exercise.

A while back I read this year’s Nebula nominees. (All but the one that actually won, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, which, having read Bacigalupi’s short stories, I felt I’d practically already read.) I was going to write something about all of them but I stopped before getting to The Love We Share Without Knowing and Boneshaker. They seemed like a good place to restart these reviews.

I liked Christopher Barzak’s The Love We Share Without Knowing–this was the book I’d hoped would get the Nebula–and yet I’m not sure how much I have to say about it that can’t be distilled to a banal “Hey, this is really good.” Which is why this review is short.

TLWSWK is the kind of novel built from short stories whose characters weave in and out of each others’ lives. The stories are set in the area of an English-language school in Japan staffed partly by young American expatriates who moved abroad to find their lives are pretty much the same wherever they go. There’s no single overarching plot, and most stories could stand on their own, but the whole is greater than the sum of their parts.

The problem with this kind of thing is that some readers might miss the whole if they don’t like the parts. Here, the first story is the weakest; it hinges on a plot twist that anyone who’s read more than a couple of ghost stories will see coming from a thousand miles away, and when it’s over its narrator entirely disappears from the book. If anyone read the first story and put the book down, and is now reading this review, then give it another chance, okay?

The title is taken from an incident that crops up in two stories, told from two perspectives. Two people who’ve checked into a Japanese “love hotel” find a note in the guest book from someone who didn’t come with a partner–someone who just comes for the atmosphere, who feels a connection with the unseen strangers in the other rooms and “the love we share without knowing.” For one of the point-of-view characters in that doubled scene, finding the message is a perspective-changing moment; the other doesn’t get it. Not that it’s likely that everything that goes on in that hotel is love, but Guest Book Guy is at least trying to make connections.

The structure of TLWSWK is also its theme. It’s about what it is–about its characters’ inadvertent assumption of bit parts in other characters’ stories, how they unintentionally, like random pool balls, knock friends and strangers onto new trajectories. In this book’s world, karma isn’t something that comes back to you but something that rubs off on other people. One person’s decision, years later, nudges a friend in the same direction; relationships that don’t mean much to one character change others’ lives; a character is saved by another’s decision to ignore an instruction. It’s slightly scary to think we may never know the best and worst things we’ve done in our lives because the consequences played out years later, or miles away, and maybe among strangers.

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