A Review of
In Things Unseen: A Novel
Gar Anthony Haywood
Reviewed by John Wilson
Near the end of the 1980s, I discovered a writer named Gar Anthony Haywood, whose first novel, Fear of the Dark, had been published a year or two before. I think it was an interview with Haywood that first caught my attention, but I haven’t been able to track it down. He credited Ross Macdonald (one of my favorite writers) for inspiring him to write fiction; Aaron Gunner, the protagonist of Fear of the Dark (and of many subsequent novels), is a private investigator, like Macdonald’s Lew Archer. But while Archer’s office is on Sunset Strip, Gunner’s is in Watts: he’s black, like his creator.
Wait, you may be saying. A black writer with a black PI as protagonist? Why haven’t I heard about him? Who knows? Maybe because, while his fiction is loaded with excoriating depictions of racism, Haywood hasn’t followed the party line. Maybe because he is a Christian. And it’s not as if he hasn’t put together a good career, writing for TV in addition to a big shelf of novels. The careers of most writers—whether famous, obscure, or somewhere in between—are marked by twists and turns, unexpected shifts, which get smoothed out and elided in potted summaries of Life & Work. Haywood is a case in point, and his new novel, In Things Unseen, is Exhibit A.
This book is quite different from anything Haywood has written before. I’m not giving anything away when I tell you the premise, which is set up at the outset. Eight months before the story begins, a seven-year-old boy, Adrian Edwards, was killed by a drunk driver at a park in Seattle. In the time of agonizing grief that followed, the boy’s mother, Diane, and his father, Michael, were divided by their responses to the accident, until finally Michael moved out. While Diane has kept her faith in God, Michael hasn’t. To him, his wife’s obsessional prayers suggest that they will never be able to resume a semblance of normal life together.
Then one day, Diane finds Adrian at home, alive, as if nothing had happened to him. Only four people, she subsequently learns, have any memory of the fatal accident eight months earlier: herself; her estranged husband; the 68-year-old man, Milton Weisman, responsible for the accident; and Laura Carillo, Adrian’s young teacher, who doted on him. The reappearance of Adrian in her classroom, as if nothing had happened, practically drives Laura out of her mind, the more so because everyone else at school, students and staff alike, seem to have no memory of what actually happened eight months earlier: it’s as if there had been no fatal accident, no funeral, no bitter months of struggle with the brute fact of such a pointless death. Confronting this erasure of the past, Laura feels that she’s the victim of an incomprehensible conspiracy.
In addition to these characters, two more figure significantly in the story: Allison Hope, a former journalist, and her younger partner, Flo Davenport, a professor of environmental science. Through the online grapevine, Allison learns about Laura’s reaction to Adrian’s reappearance in the classroom, as if he had never been missing. Desperate to get a foothold in journalism again, Allison senses that there might be a story here, one she could pitch as a freelancer.
Those are the basic ingredients. Novels of this kind, turning on a seemingly inexplicable event and raising questions about how we know what we know, tend to be shorter rather than longer, with elements of the parable, the “tale,” less so the furniture of “realistic” fiction. But Haywood deliberately confounds such expectations. What he gives us instead is a deep perspectivalism, which implicitly urges us to compare the various ways in which the principal characters respond to the core event—perhaps urging us, as well, to ask how we would respond.