Maxwell as a novelist reminds me of a watchmaker. I picture him with an eyeglass, bent over a workbench, gently putting each tiny piece in place with care and skill. The more I ponder this beautiful book, the more I appreciate its intricacy and artistry, a miniature marvel.
The story starts with a moment of uncharacteristic drama – a gunshot, which turns out to be a murder. The narrator, who was a boy at the time, re-imagines in old age the events leading to that moment and beyond. The story isn’t really important, although the craft of it is masterly in itself. It reads like so much inconsequential minutiae to begin with but (as per watchmaker analogy) builds into a perfect self-contained little work of art. The defining moment for the narrator is not the murder, but snubbing his childhood friend (the victim’s son) later in high school – not a huge dramatic moment but a tiny fleeting one, and it’s this guilt that haunts him still in his later years. This tells you everything about Maxwell’s emotional focus: regret and shame, which his understated elegiac prose conveys so well. Oh and he does children so well too, and ordinary people, and landscape, and domestic interiors, and animals – never sentimental, always compassionate and benign. But loss and leaving is his greatest strength – it’s right there in the beautifully wistful valedictory title.