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Book Review: The Illusion of Separateness

A new short story collection called The Illusion of Separateness taps into an old belief that humankind is one. Book critic Joan Baum has this review:

Someone once said of the award-winning fiction writer Simon Van Booy that his stories are like paintings characters walk out of, and keep on walking. Nice, but add that as they walk out of one painting, they walk into another, creating an interrelated series. In his latest story collection, The Illusion of Separateness, Booy beautifully explores this sense of being connected with a theme that’s foreshadowed by the book’s epigraph and title: It’s a phrase from Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who said, “We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.” It’s amazing how Booy interweaves different characters to show how an instinctive act of sacrifice can resonate for generations to come. What’s amazing, also, is Booy’s prose.  Simple, quietly poetic, and shell-shock understated, like Hemingway’s, proving that less can indeed be more.

Van Booy interweaves different characters to show how an instinctive act of sacrifice can resonate for generations to come. - Joan Baum

Because Booy’s stories reference each other as they move back and forth in time, The Illusion of Separateness is rightly called “A Novel.” The sense of separate stories is an illusion. Life can be six degrees of separation, if even that. Though the characters may not fully know what happened to them years ago at a terrible time in a foreign land, the reader sees how these unrelated individuals eventually connect in an invisible chain of humanity. The book opens with a section called “Martin.”  Martin works as a caretaker in a retirement home for actors in Los Angeles. He’s dedicated, intuitively compassionate. The time is 2010. Then the sections go back – Manchester 1981, France 1968, Coney island 1942, Amagansett, Long Island 2005, and so on, until the last section called “Mr. Hugo” – it’s France 1944, right before the liberation. A German soldier, injured and destitute, scoops up an abandoned baby left after a Nazi raid and runs with it through fields of dead bodies and Paris alleyways. As the Nazis corner him, he manages to hand off the child to a young French woman, before he goes out in the street again and gets half his face blown off. The woman and her husband keep the baby. And name him Martin.

Wartime France is the center of the book which turns on a love story. Harriet and John meet and marry in New York, before John goes off to pilot a B-24. His plane is shot down over the French coast, however, and he’s presumed dead.  Somehow he survives and crawls to where he’s found, but not before he spares the life of a nearly dead German soldier. In an endnote, Booy notes that John’s story was inspired by a real-life story of a pilot who died 20 years ago, but whose 94-year-old widow still lives in Connecticut. The illusion of fiction, you might say. Fine story telling, for sure.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.