Next Life Might Be Kinder

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“An opening sentence worthy of the Noir Hall of Fame . . . provocative . . . haunting . . . deft.” — Janet Maslin, New York Times
“Engrossing . . . Norman pulls off a fascinating balancing act here: the literary page-turner that, when it’s done, you want to retrace.” — Seattle Times

Sam Lattimore meets Elizabeth Church in 1970s Halifax, in an art gallery. Their brief, erotically ...

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Next Life Might Be Kinder

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“An opening sentence worthy of the Noir Hall of Fame . . . provocative . . . haunting . . . deft.” — Janet Maslin, New York Times
“Engrossing . . . Norman pulls off a fascinating balancing act here: the literary page-turner that, when it’s done, you want to retrace.” — Seattle Times

Sam Lattimore meets Elizabeth Church in 1970s Halifax, in an art gallery. Their brief, erotically charged marriage is extinguished with Elizabeth’s murder. Sam’s life afterward is complicated. In a moment of desperate confusion, he sells his life story to a Norwegian filmmaker named Istvakson, known for the stylized violence of his films, whose artistic drive sets in motion an increasingly intense cat-and-mouse game between the two men. Furthermore, Sam has begun “seeing” Elizabeth—not only seeing but holding conversations with her, almost every evening, and what at first seems simply hallucination born of terrible grief reveals itself, evening by evening, as something else entirely.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Janet Maslin
Next Life Might Be Kinder defies categorization…[a] swift, haunting novel…
Publishers Weekly
This somewhat far-fetched but nonetheless entertaining novel set in 1973 by Norman (The Bird Artist) involves a young man’s struggles to overcome his grief and rage. Thirtysomething Sam Lattimore, a novelist who has published his debut title and struggles to write his second one, lives at a Halifax hotel with his younger wife Elizabeth Church, a Ph.D. candidate writing her dissertation on the British author Marghanita Laski and her 1953 novel The Victorian Chaise-Lounge. While taking lindy dance lessons without Sam, Elizabeth partners with Alfonse Padgett, “a psychopathic thug in a bellman’s uniform.” After he assaults her and later Sam, the couple files a complaint with the hotel security, and the vengeful Padgett soon retaliates by fatally shooting Elizabeth. The devastated Sam begins his psychiatric sessions with the older Dr. Nissensen (these sessions form the opening of the book), in which Lattimore reveals he talks to Elizabeth’s spirit when they meet on the beach at night. Meanwhile, broke and confused by his grief, Sam sells the movie rights to Elizabeth’s lurid murder story to Peter Istvakson, an ambitious and “egotistical” film director. While Istvakson and his production crew shoot the movie on location in Halifax, he harasses the increasingly agitated Sam with personal questions about his marriage to juice up the movie’s realism—pushing Norman’s bittersweet yarn to a violent climax. (May)
From the Publisher
"an opening sentence worthy of the Noir Hall of Fame...provocative...haunting...deft"—Janet Maslin, New York Times

"Engrossing...Norman pulls off a fascinating balancing act here: the literary page-turner that, when it’s done, you want to retrace"—The Seattle Times

"compelling and satisfying. Howard Norman has written a complex literary novel and a page-turner that’s impossible to put down."—Minneapolis Star Tribune

"quirky and"—Washington Post

"This latest novel, a strange and tragic love story told with great power and beauty, is a remarkable achievement… Shining through the confusion and madness is Norman’s masterly depiction of Sam and Elizabeth’s love affair before the murder, showing two people living modest, quiet lives who are redeemed and blessed by having found real love. VERDICT An inspiring and beautiful book; enthusiastically recommended for fans of literary fiction." —Library Journal, STARRED review

"Once again Norman (What Is Left the Daughter, 2010) portrays Nova Scotia as a mystical realm, where the dead haunt the living, and time is tidal. The inspiration for this dark, sexy, allusive, and diabolical tale is found in Norman’s memoir, I Hate to Leave this Beautiful Place (2013), further complicating the novel’s eerie investigation into the yin and yang of verisimilitude and aberration."—Booklist, STARRED review

"Sweet,'ll be richly rewarded."—Washingtonian

"a beguiling tale"—Kirkus Reviews

"[A] somewhat far-fetched but nonetheless entertaining novel"— Publishers Weekly

"A nimbus of unknowability lights up this exploration of love, and how we live in the ambiguous context of love, always moving backward and forward, as we do dancing the Lindy.  Howard Norman has created a very real mystery, in writing a mystery about what we choose to look at as 'very real.'  It’s vivid, haunting, and – as always, with this writer – beautifully and carefully written and unique, it’s meaning both elegant and elusive. I greatly admire Howard Norman’s writing." —Ann Beattie

Library Journal
★ 03/15/2014
Norman has been producing award-caliber fiction for many years; The Bird Artist and The Northern Lights were both finalists for the National Book Award. This latest novel, a strange and tragic love story told with great power and beauty, is a remarkable achievement. The book blends macabre elements, including murder, with an absurdity and humor out of Kafka or Pirandello (a film is in fact being made about the murder). It also includes utterly convincing depictions of human love and compassion. The novel's narrator and protagonist, Sam Lattimore, has recently lost new wife Elizabeth, who was killed by a deranged bellman at the Nova Scotia hotel where the couple was living after their recent marriage. Although Sam is able to function almost normally, he is psychologically destabilized by this loss and has convinced himself that Elizabeth talks with him each night when he takes his evening walk on the beach. Shining through the confusion and madness is Norman's masterly depiction of Sam and Elizabeth's love affair before the murder, showing two people living modest, quiet lives who are redeemed and blessed by having found real love. VERDICT An inspiring and beautiful book; enthusiastically recommended for fans of literary fiction.—Patrick Sullivan, Manchester Community Coll., CT
Kirkus Reviews
A man's anguish over his wife's murder—soon to be a major motion picture—blurs his grasp of reality in the latest moody, Halifax-set tale by Norman (What Is Left the Daughter, 2010; Devotion, 2007, etc.). Sam Lattimore, the narrator of Norman's eighth novel, is in mourning: As the story opens, it's been almost a year and a half since his wife, Elizabeth, was killed by a bellman at the Halifax hotel where they lived. And while he has sensibly taken on a therapist to work through his grief, he less-than-sensibly insists that he often sees Elizabeth on a beach at night, putting piles of books in order. Sam grudgingly sold the rights to the tragedy to a director, but the filming is doing little to help him achieve closure, a word he can't stand anyway. In brief, episodic chapters, Norman shuttles between Sam's present-day processing and his memories of life with Elizabeth, particularly her obsession with the British author Marghanita Laski (1915-1988) and the increasingly unwelcome and threatening advances she endured by the bellman. The quirky, downbeat milieu is typical of Norman's fiction, which balances an obsession with specific details about time and place with more high-flown musings on morality and love. Here, Norman is chiefly concerned with the subjectivity of history, which he explores in terms of Sam's remembrances of Elizabeth, his unshakable visions of her and the filmmaker's rewriting of their lives. This high-concept stuff sometimes works at a low boil: Much of Sam's narration comes in the context of his therapist appointments, which makes the reality-versus-fantasy debate feel too neatly framed, more discussed than described. But while that dampens the impact of Sam's emotional unraveling, it's a beguiling tale overall, a novel Paul Auster might write after a trip to Canada's Eastern shore. Not Norman's finest work but an intriguing attempt to complicate his usual concerns.
The Barnes & Noble Review
All novelists have their favorite themes and settings, but Howard Norman clings to his so tightly that to read him is to practically enter a fugue state. His seven somber novels are all set in Canada, typically near Halifax, Nova Scotia, and turn on offbeat calamities: a unicyclist crashing through a frozen lake (1987's The Northern Lights), a husband and wife leaping off separate bridges on the same evening (2010's What Is Left the Daughter), a zeppelin crash (1998's The Museum Guard), a murdered lighthouse keeper (1994's The Bird Artist). Norman almost always provides specific dates for these incidents, as if he were the desk sergeant minding literary fiction's police blotter. Hotels abound, liminal spaces that accommodate affairs and violence. Birds abound too, symbols of elusive freedom or nature's cruel whims. But what prevails above all in Norman's work is a mood of intellectual struggle in the face of loss. The Japanese novelist Ryunosuke Akutagawa once wrote, "What good is intelligence is you cannot discover a useful melancholy?" It's a line Norman has quoted in at least four of his books.

So you come to Norman not to be surprised at his themes but at his variations, and Next Life Might Be Kinder is his most gothic treatment of his familiar obsessions. As the novel opens (dated with customary precision: August 28, 1973), the narrator, Sam, is remembering his late wife, Elizabeth (shot by a bellman in a Halifax hotel). Sam insists that Elizabeth is not gone entirely: She appears to him almost every night, he says, lining up a stack of books on a beach near the carriage house where he lives. Sam's therapist reasonably figures his client is seeking closure, but "closure" is a word that infuriates Sam. "Where's the Office of Closure?" he cracks. "Can you write down the address, please? We'll drop by as soon as we can. Are there many forms to fill out?"

Sam's emotional fracture -- we're deep in the Land of the Unreliable Narrator here -- is underscored by the fragmented form of the book itself. Chapters are clipped and episodic, often no more than a few pages, and the story swings back and forth in time. Here, Sam rants to the therapist about the director making a movie about Elizabeth's murder; there, he recalls his courtship with Elizabeth and her love for the British writer Marghanita Laski, whose 1953 novel, The Victorian Chaise-longue, was her dissertation subject. Then he's back to fuming at the "psychopathic thug in a bellman's uniform" who killed Elizabeth. Sam has not only lost control of his emotions, he's unwilling to claim a capacity for control. "Something not good was happening with me," he says, passively.

Norman can be a little on-the-nose about Sam's despair. Sam is a novelist, and before Elizabeth's death he wrote scripts for a radio program called Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons. (Episode titles: "The Case of the Author Who Lost His Soul"; "The Case of the Husband Who Didn't Believe His Wife Was Dead.") And Sam's squabbles with his therapist can feel repetitive and claustrophobic. But Norman is echoing the dark-night-in-a-locked-room quality of The Victorian Chaise-longue, a remarkable novella about a tubercular woman who wakes up nearly a century earlier trapped both by her illness and the social mores of the time about motherhood. (The book is out of print in the United States; England's Persephone Books sells a handsome reissue introduced by P. D. James.) Elizabeth's dissertation was on what Laski called "the imprimatur of permanent melancholy," and it's easy to imagine Norman's ears pricking up upon reading that line.

Next Life Might Be Kinder doesn't resolve Sam's predicament so much as it clarifies the depths of his grief, exposing how intense Kubler-Ross's second stage of anger can be. When Sam confesses to his own act of violence in a late chapter, we're meant to wonder how much of it is true and how much of it is a revenge fantasy. How much "closure" does he feel he's attained by that acting-out, and how much are we willing to forgive Sam if what he did was true? "Guilt mercilessly set in," he writes after the incident, and it's almost reassuring that he has the capacity for that emotion.

Next Life Might Be Kinder may be the most hallucinatory of Norman's novels, but that's still in keeping with his lifelong work as a novelist; he's always been fascinated by the way our psychological states blur in the face of tragedy. In What Is Left the Daughter, Norman described a killing this way: "Things then seemed to happen in a dream -- I mean, in the way a dream can tamper with all common sense, make you feel you're both participating in something and watching at some remove." Sam experiences a more radical version of this disconnection -- bereft, he labors to reimagine and reinvent history. Sam has abdicated his command of his story. But Norman is steady at the wheel.

Mark Athitakis is a writer, editor, critic, and blogger who?s spent more than a dozen years in journalism. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World, Chicago Sun-Times, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Washington City Paper, and many other publications. He is currently a member of the Board of Directors of the National Book Critics Circle.

Reviewer: Athitakis, Mark

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780547712123
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 5/13/2014
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 397,967
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

HOWARD NORMAN is a three-time winner of National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and a winner of the Lannan Award for fiction. His novels The Northern Lights and The Bird Artist were both nominated for a National Book Award. He is also author of the novels The Museum Guard, The Haunting of L, and What Is Left the Daughter.
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Read an Excerpt

Elizabeth Church

After my wife, Elizabeth Church, was murdered by the bellman Alfonse Padgett in the Essex Hotel, she did not leave me. I have always thought a person needs to constantly refine the capacity to suspend disbelief in order to keep emotions organized and not suffer debilitating confusion, and I mean just toward the things of daily life. I suppose this admits to a desperate sort of pragmatism. Still, it works for me. What human heart isn’t in extremis? The truth is, I saw Elizabeth last night, August 27, 1973. She was lining up books on the beach behind Philip and Cynthia Slayton’s house, just across the road. I’ve seen her do the same thing almost every night since I moved, roughly thirteen months ago, from Halifax to this cottage. I’m now a resident of Port Medway, Nova Scotia.
   At three-thirty a.m., sitting at my kitchen table, as usual I made notes for Dr. Nissensen. I see him at ten a.m. on Tuesdays in Halifax, which is a two-hour drive. I often stay at the Haliburton House Inn on Monday night and then travel back to Port Medway immediately following my session. Don’t get me wrong, Dr. Nissensen is helping me a lot. But we have bad moments. After the worst of them I sometimes can’t remember where I parked my pickup truck. Then there are the numbing redundancies. Take last Tuesday, when Dr. Nissensen said:
   “My position remains, you aren’t actually seeing Elizabeth. She was in fact murdered in the Essex Hotel on March 26 of last year. And she is buried in Hay-on-Wye in Wales. But her death is unacceptable to you, Sam. You want so completely to see her that you hallucinate—and she sets those books out on the sand. It’s your mind’s way of trying to postpone the deeper suffering of having lost her. One thing books suggest is, you’re supposed to read into the situation. To read into things. Naturally, it’s more complicated than just that. It can be many things at once. My opinion has not changed since the first time you told me about talking with Elizabeth on the beach”—he paged back through his notebook—“on September 4, 1972, your first mention of this. My position remains that, as impressively creative as your denial is, and to whatever extent it sustains you, it’s still denial.”
   “My God,” I said. “A life without denial. How could a person survive?”
   Nissensen smiled and sighed deeply: Here we go again. “What’s on the piece of paper you’re holding? You’ve been holding it in clear view since you arrived.”
   I had copied out from a dictionary the definition of “Bardo.” “Let me read this to you: ‘Bardo—a Tibetan concept meaning intermediate state.’ It’s when a person’s existing between death and whatever’s next. And during this state, certain of the usual restraints might not be at work, in some cases for a long, long time.”
   “And you feel this is what you’re experiencing with Elizabeth?”
   “Yes. Which I hope lasts until I die.”
   “So, you’ve recently found this word in a dictionary and now you’re embracing it,” Dr. Nissensen said. “Okay, let’s go with this a moment. What do you think it means that certain—what was it?—usual restraints might not be at work?”
   “Well, to start with, obviously a person who’s died is usually restrained to being invisible, right? They usually don’t show up on a beach and hold conversations.”
   “Yes, I’ve got quite a notebook filled with your and Elizabeth’s conversations.”
   “That makes two of us, then.”
   “I’ve been curious, Sam. Do you jot these down as they occur? Like a stenographer?”
   “Like a stenographer, yes, sometimes. But sometimes I just listen closely and write things down the minute I get back to the cottage.”
   “Week after week, you attempt to convince me you’re actually having real conversations, rather than, for instance, composing them. At your writing desk. The way you might when writing a novel, say.”
   “Do you consider me a stupid man?” I asked.
   “Of course not.”
   “A liar?”
   “Of course not.”
   “No matter whether or not it’s called Bardo, the word’s not that important. The thing is, I talk with Elizabeth almost every night. And talking with Elizabeth is a reprieve from suffering. After all this time, you still don’t get it.”
   “No, no,” Nissensen said, “I get it.”
   “Yet you insist on calling what’s happening to me an—what was it?”
   “An advent of mourning.”
   “Advent of mourning. But I despise the word ‘mourning.’”
   “And why is that, Sam?”
   “Because it implies a certain fixed duration, a measurable time frame, and it also relates to my most hated word: closure. If you love someone and they suddenly disappear—say they die—there is no closure. It’s like, it’s like—what?—it’s like a Bach cello composition playing in your head that doesn’t let up. You can’t predict for how long. What if it’s for the rest of your life? You don’t just get closure. You don’t just come to terms and then move on. And not even a lobotomy could change my mind about this. And I’ve read C. S. Lewis, that book of his—A Grief Observed. I’ve read some theology and philosophy, advice-to-the-bereaved stuff, and I don’t give a goddamn who says what or how dramatic or limited or self-destructive I sound. Closure is cowardice. When you lose someone you love, the memory of them maintains a tenacious adhesiveness to the heart—I quote Chekhov there. See, if you don’t feel very articulate, it’s useful to find people like Chekhov to help you out.”
   “I don’t think being inarticulate is your—”
   “Look, if I ever said ‘Oh, I’ve found closure with Elizabeth,’ please push me in front of a taxi on Water Street—I’d be dead to feeling anyway. You have my permission ahead of time. Shoot me in the head.”
   “I’m your therapist. You’d have to ask someone else.”
   Silence a moment, then he said, “‘Dead to feeling.’ So the pain keeps you alive to feeling.”
   There was silence for maybe three or four minutes. This seldom bothers me. I just study the room. It is a basement refurbished as an office. Against three walls are shelves of books. Also, there are books crowded and piled haphazardly on tables. Mostly books on psychology, but I’ve noticed a few novels, too. Dostoyevsky. Thomas Mann. Virginia Woolf. Conrad. Charlotte Brontë. Little that’s contemporary. There is a small Van Gogh drawing of a village; I’ve wanted to ask if it’s an original. I’ve wanted to ask if it was inherited. There are five framed charcoal drawings of various women, not nudes. I know that his wife, Theresa, drew them because there are two others in the exact same style in the waiting room, each bearing her signature. There’s his overstuffed chair he sits on, and a sofa his clients sit on. On the table between the chair and the sofa, a box of tissues, a glass, and a pitcher of water. There are five ground-level windows, allowing for plenty of light, but also three floor lamps and one table lamp. The house is in a neighborhood of some of the oldest buildings in Halifax. Dr. Nissensen’s is a late-nineteenth-century townhouse. Winter mornings I occasionally hear the clanking echoes of the radiators. A car horn. On rare occasions a voice from the street.
   “Last week you mentioned that lately Elizabeth has told you things she’d”—he flipped back through his notebook—“kept secret, but not on purpose.”
   “Yes, it’s been great.”
   “I’m curious,” Dr. Nissensen said. “Is there any particular thing you’d most like Elizabeth to tell you?”
   “If it’s a secret, how would I even know to ask about it?”
   “I was thinking of the phrase ‘a painful secret.’”
   “There is one thing. It’s something lately I sense she wants to tell me.”
   “And now you in fact want to hear it?”
   “I’m sort of afraid to hear it, actually.”
   He closed his notebook and stared at the cover, then looked up at me.
   “Is that one thing how she was murdered, Sam? What really happened. Not in the courtroom, what the bellman Alfonse Padgett described as having occurred, but the incident from Elizabeth’s point of view. Her own account of it. Which would naturally be the truth to you ​— ​and should be. Are you afraid, as you say, because you might then experience what she felt at that moment? And yet you want to feel everything she felt. Because you loved her so deeply.”
   “Not past tense, please. Love, not loved.”

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