cover image Small World

Small World

Jonathan Evison. Dutton, $28 (480p) ISBN 978-0-593-18412-7

Evison’s ambitious if overlong latest (after Legends of the North Cascades) tells the stories of a train’s passengers and their ancestors after a disastrous crash. In 2019, veteran conductor Walter Bergen embarks from Portland, Ore., to Seattle, his final journey on the Amtrak payroll. Estranged from his family for decades, Bergen is a simple train-loving man who adores his wife Annie, and is also, as shown in one of the novel’s many descriptive passages set in the mid-19th century, a descendant of Chicago Irish twin orphans. Malik, a passenger and a young basketball star heading toward a prized invitational, is a descendent of an enslaved person. After the train crashes, Malik pleads with Walter to help his injured mother. There’s also Jenny, a corporate consultant and descendent of Chinese immigrant entrepreneurs; and Laila, a Native American, who is fleeing an abusive husband. While some of the historical details and the characters’ relationships to one another feel a bit scattered, Evison’s depiction of the characters’ family histories builds significance as contemporary racial inequalities and class disparities are brought into relief against those of the 1850s. “America was a rigged competition,” one character remarks, firmly setting the tone and cadence of Evison’s expansive saga. It’s baggy, but still thick with insights. Agent: Mollie Glick, Creative Artists Agency. (Jan.)