Review: Emotions put stranglehold on 'From a Distance'

By Rob Cline, correspondent

“From a Distance,” the new novel by Iowa City author Larry Baker, is a book filled with hidden and claustrophobic spaces. There’s a bookstore so overstuffed it is nearly unnavigable. There’s an entire floor of a New York high rise that is hidden from most everyone. There’s the troubled mind of a woman who suffers unspeakable abuse and never fully recovers.

The book’s title, with its suggestion of hard won perspective, is a commentary on the closed in nature of the narrative. None of the characters can see the whole story, and their experience of it — and the way they describe it to others and themselves — varies widely.

At the center of the novel is Ellie, a mentally ill woman who writes her own story in fits and starts for various audiences real and imagined. She is in love with Bobby — who she calls Peyton — a man whose heritage is not quite what it seems. Bobby leaves Charleston for New York and soon becomes a much-respected publisher. He holds at arm’s length his assistant, Sally, a woman who can’t quite overcome Bobby’s attachment to the troubled lover from his youth.

Though Bobby and Sally’s stories are written from a third-person perspective, they are similar to the passages in Ellie’s voice in that they are much concerned with memory and self-doubt. Indeed, the book itself is something of a claustrophobic space for the reader as the story keeps the focus on the lingering emotions tied to experiences rather than on the experiences themselves.

As the book comes to a close, one character tries to create and occupy the necessary distance to bring a resolution to the central story. It’s an act of devotion after much is lost, and it brings the characters in “From a Distance” to the end of their long, troubled journey.

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