September 2011

Elizabeth Urello


Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon van Booy

"After every chapter, there is rebuilding. It happens without thought."

Simon Van Booy's Everything Beautiful Began After begins with three young people building a life together in a city of the past and becomes the story of one man's struggle to rebuild himself among the ruins of grief.

The novel opens in Athens as seen through the eyes of Rebecca, a young French artist who has moved there to hide away and sketch and paint and, she hopes, to put together an exhibition. Rebecca soon meets George, an American expert in ancient languages and a devoted alcoholic, who quickly falls in love with her. Then she meets Henry, a charismatic British archeologist with whom she begins an affair. The three members of this love triangle are each running from a painful childhood, and as they work together at an archaeological dig, they chip carefully around each other's feelings and histories, anxious not to damage the affection for each other they're beginning to uncover.

Their Athens is grubby and poetic, beautiful in its ugliness, the ever-present fourth party in their excursions. Its cafes, museums, courtyards, and ancient marble apartment buildings with balconies facing the street provide a setting that's evocative in a way that's common in books and movies about young, pretty white people -- their surroundings seem to flow out from them harmoniously, reflecting their various moods, rather than beat against them in opposition. The world is never something these people have to fight to survive. It's a place where they float along and observe, and all of their conflict comes from within.á

Until the end of Book One when, just as everything's going so swimmingly the reader is praying for disaster, it arrives and blows apart Athens and the trio of young people we've been getting to know.

Tragedy shifts everything, and the prose reflects that -- the point of view switches from third-person to second, used here to communicate shock and grief by suggesting a detached and disembodied character, one neither fully submerged in his own story nor quite finished with it. The second-person narrative follows Henry as he drifts around the world, warring internally with his own collapsed past. Athens manages to rebuild itself before Henry can.

Van Booy's prose style is intentionally disjointed in all ways other than the unfailing elegance of his language. He slips slightly forward and back in time -- not consistently or in whole sections, but choppily and occasionally, as if he's riding the breaks rather than making U-turns. Point-of-view switches and then switches back again, as does past and present tense. The tone, too, changes lanes unpredictably. Paragraphs pour forth lyrically, hypnotically, only to be abruptly interrupted by, for example, an almost slapstick passage wherein George explains to Rebecca that he's not drunk, then looks down and realizes he's holding an open beer can and has peed on his shoes. The comedy of this section rarely recurs, but it doesn't stick out, either, because Van Booy is inconsistent in a controlled, purposeful way. His three characters pursue their messy, unpredictable paths underneath a solid net of loveliness that holds the book's world together. Each sentence is lined up carefully regardless of its narrative purpose, another stroke on the canvas where Van Booy paints his Athens and, later, Henry's experiences.

The novel is focused on history and wreckage leading to rebirth. Henry and Rebecca fall in love in a museum over the mummified bones of a long-dead child. George and Henry excavate the past in an ancient city that soon will once again attempt to bury the lives within it. When Henry revisits Athens two short years after leaving it, the backdrop of his own personal past there is unrecognizable behind the gleaming fašade of progress. When Henry visits Rebecca's family, her brother-in-law shows him the wrecked car that still sits in the bushes, a monument to the collision that introduced him to his wife and his future, and saved him from himself. Statues and monuments to the dead, historical tributes to the casualties of disasters and time, decorate nearly every scene in the book.

The characters of Everything Beautiful Began After are constrained by the past in a world that too often encourages people to continually divorce themselves from history as quickly as possible, to kick sand over it and walk away. But Rebecca, Henry, and George are unable to do this, whether they'd like to or not. George drinks because, "When he was drunk, the past was a smoking ruin far away -- something he could shrug off."

Henry has to abandon the past in order to move forward, or, at least, that's what he tells himself, but in the end, it isn't how he does it. Despair opens him to the idea of fate, of a future willed and preordained by all that came before. A boring realization, in my opinion, but one that Henry, archeologist and emotional dweller, is primed to accept: "The past is a mess of lines, like a sketch seen from afar. Our perception of the future is the past in disguise." Although Henry's experience of time is strictly linear, his story's progress is circular. The novel's conclusion is in its beginning, but by the time you arrive there, you'll have long since forgotten how everything began.

Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy
ISBN: 978-0061661488
416 pages