cover image Underground Fugue

Underground Fugue

Margot Singer. Melville House (PRH, dist.), $25.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-61219-628-2

In music, a fugue is a composition where two or more voices hand off a theme to each other, enriching it in their interplay; in psychology, a fugue is a dissociative state, a forgetting and flight from the self. Singer’s novel utilizes both meanings for an unusually layered debut. In short, taut chapters, the novel alternates between two families who have suddenly become neighbors. Esther’s surface reason for coming to London from New York in 2005 is to take care of her mother, Lonia, who’s dying of cancer. But it becomes clear as the story progresses that she is in flight from the emotional pain following her son Noah’s drowning, and from the dissolution of her marriage. Her neighbor Javad Asghari is an Iranian-born doctor researching the true case of the “Piano Man,” an unidentified person who can’t or won’t speak and has become a tabloid sensation. Javad too has a failed marriage. His 19-year-old son, Amir (who is about the same age Noah would have been), has a penchant for exploring London’s underground, a fact that will become significant as the plot approaches the July 2005 bombings. Interspersed are Lonia’s memories of fleeing Poland in 1939. Occasionally the novel stumbles as the characters intertwine in predictably romantic ways, or when the themes of loss and longing are sounded for a bit too long. However, when terror strikes, the plot accelerates and the novel’s strands converge brilliantly. Singer’s debut novel satisfyingly fulfills a good novel’s aim: to shed light on “the secret interiors of other people’s lives.” (Apr.)