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A tight but not too tidy tale of an unlikely love affair

The Baltimore Sun

Winterton Blue

Trezza Azzopardi

Grove / 273 pages / $24

In Winterton Blue, the new novel by Trezza Azzopardi, Lewis is the handsome but high-strung drifter tortured by the premature death, years before, of his twin brother, Wayne. Lewis cannot hold down a job, he cannot maintain much in the way of a normal human relationship, and he cannot bear to be in a room than has much more in it than a bed.

"He rests his back against the railing and puts his kitbag on his lap to stop his knees from jumping. He wants to be no one again, the invisible man, but the confusion - and then the realization - washes over him like sweat: He's run away from one bad situation, and straight into another. For a second, he sees himself as if he's been tied on a long piece of invisible elastic, getting catapulted from one place to the next, only to return twice as quicky. ... More like a wrecking ball, he says, under his breath."

It would seem that Azzopardi seeks, as do many admirable novelists working in the United Kingdom, to thwart one of the great problems of novels, as described by E.M. Forster: the way novels often end with overly tidy weddings or funerals.

From the start of Winterton Blue, there seems little hope that any sort of tidiness of the nuptial sort could happen, and, from the start, there is something of a post-mortem nostalgia that keeps Lewis and many of the characters moving. The balance of chaos and order, death and life, seems to depend upon the objects saved and sacrificed from and to the wrecking ball of living in a damaged world.

Objects seem to be something for all the characters to trip over, either psychologically or physically. In Azzopardi's austere Norfolk landscape of cliff and water, things torture and console Lewis: rings, rubber skeletons, windmills, dummies, broken mirrors, stolen vans, bad paintings and medical bracelets. Yarmouth, on the coast of East Anglia, is the perfect place for a wrecking ball, or an artist.

Enter Anna, a photographer, an artist living in London and a woman better suited to relationships with squirrels and gay men. Her romantic track record is something for her squirrelly friend Brendan to tally for her as if she were a downwardly mobile Don Juan: "Remember Joseph? Did he have two wives, or three? Now he was a bad choice. And that one with the piercings and all the cats."

The book is filled with the economies and tight necessities of Paula Fox's prose, and of any author of that postwar British tradition who makes words count and tells a story with sly humor. Beryl Bainbridge, Muriel Spark and Graham Greene all come to mind, but Azzopardi's style is all her own; she never sacrifices sensuous description to her thrifty spareness. The smallest object refracts into a kaleidoscopic world: "Miss Hepple showed Lewis how to pile all the colour palettes into the sink, running the tap until they sank. Some of the paint hadn't been mixed properly, and pockets of powder bloomed to the surface. The water swirled green and blue and red, black spiraling through yellow."

The smallest gesture unfurls into a whole scene. At one point, Anna gives her hand to Lewis to inspect after a small accident: "She kneels; now he can see her face more clearly. Her eyes are sharp with pain, or maybe irritation; her skin glows pearl. To Lewis, she is exquisite. He feels the wire in his chest unravel. Taking her fingers, he flexes them slightly, traces below the wound with his fingertip until she grunts at him to stop. She pulls her hand away and closes it against her heart."

Yes, they fall for each other. But it's not as easy as that - and Forster would breathe a sigh of relief. These two people have a lot to sort out before they can have anything like a relationship. And yet readers are not denied certain pleasures. When Anna and Lewis kiss, it has the neurasthenic, stop-time charm of magical realism: "She has to stretch up to kiss him. Slips on the sand a little so his arm catches her just at the elbow to hold her there. His other arm closes round her, pulling her body in line with his. It's awkward and perfect. He tastes of silver."

Azzopardi, of Welsh birth and Maltese lineage, knows much about what it is like to find ways of fitting in while remaining outside. The author of two previous novels, including Man Booker Prize finalist The Hiding Place, she is proving herself to be a formidable addition to the tradition of fine novelists of the sort Forster would approve.

But since there is no little tension between England and Wales, it can't hurt to make another brief comparison to one of our better American novelists, Herman Melville. He knew how to put a twist on a marriage and funeral as well as anybody, and there is that care for objects in Azzopardi's writing that reminds readers of Melville's peg-legs, tattoos, doubloons. The objects in Winterton Blue have a life of their own (Vernon would "go mad if he heard you calling Walter a dummy. He was his partner," chides Anna's mother, "Ventriloquism ... is an art form."). Such objects are brought to life because they reveal the life and character of Azzopardi's people. A single tourmaline ring can change everything. So can an old bracelet bearing the word "epileptic."

If you know Moby-Dick, you might recall the near-impossible coincidences of that novel's ending as all the objects and characters are brought together: The harpoons fly, the doubloon glints on the sinking mast, a casket saves a life and a bird spreads its wings in the shape of a coincidental crucifix. If there's any quibble to be had about Winterton Blue, it has to do with perhaps one too many coincidences. But like Melville's whale of a finale, we want to believe in the truth of Azzopardi's world, where people who ought to get together do get together - and that, perhaps, is enough to save us, at least in this book, from the too tidy endings of ordinary novels.

Brian Bouldrey is the author of "Monster: Adventures in American Machismo," the novel "The Boom Economy," and the travel memoir "Honorable Bandit: A Walk Across Corsica," to be published this fall. He teaches writing at Northwestern University. A longer version of this review appeared in the Chicago Tribune.

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