'The Trace': Couple's journey through Mexico, tragedy haunts readers

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A couple — Dale and Hoa — travels to Mexico’s Chihuahua Desert, tracing the apocryphal path of the writer Ambrose Bierce while seeking solace and reconnection after a near-tragedy involving their son. In Forrest Gander’s new novel, “The Trace” (New Directions Books, 246 pages, $22.95), nature proves harrowing rather than healing. A particularly vicious human also haunts the story, and his path inevitably crosses that of the travelers.

Gander, who is also a poet, brings an economy and precision of language to his prose, and the result is beautiful even in the novel’s most troubling scenes. While “The Trace” is significantly longer than his first novel, “As a Friend,” which is a small masterpiece of tone and style, the new book is lean but rich in emotional resonance.

The unnamed incident with the couple’s son is central to the book, and all the more powerful for being unspecified. Here, Dale and Hoa’s lives are winnowed to their essentials:

“For a month, life was completely encapsulated in their routine. If elsewhere people read newspapers and went to their jobs, if friends met for dinner, if fathers walked their daughters to school, if lines formed in front of Abercrombie & Finch (sic) where two half-nude models stood at the entrance joking with each other and letting customers ogle them, if anything at all was happening apart from Dale and Hoa’s desperation and their son’s suffering, they didn’t acknowledge it because it happened in another world than the one in which they existed.”

Dale and Hoa’s relationship — frayed, but resilient — is beautifully portrayed, as is the brutal landscape in which they find themselves. Gander captures the fragility and uncertainty of life, our efforts to make sense of an incomprehensible world, and our powerful desire to survive and begin anew even when gripped in the maw of true desperation.

Book reading

What: Forrest Gander reads from “The Trace”

Where: Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City

When: 7 p.m. Monday

Cost: Free

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