By Hari Kunzru, Dutton, 288 pp., $25.95
In our post-9/11 world, it would seem difficult to write about terrorism before that pivotal September day and shed little light on terrorism since then, but Hari Kunzru has found a way in his disappointing novel, "My Revolutions."
About to turn 50, Michael Frame flees his dissolving relationship with Miranda Martin and their rustic life in England, where she runs a thriving cosmetics business and he works in a bookshop. He travels to France, where he believes he recently saw Anna Addison, his lover and comrade from his 1960s student radical days. He thought she had died decades ago. He wanted to ask her: "When you look back at your life, does it make sense?"
Michael has been living a lie since those rebellious days. His real name is Chris Carver, and his pastime then was every counterculture cliche of the moment, from pamphleteering to protests, interspersed with sex, drugs, and, eventually, bombings. Miranda knows nothing of his tempestuous past. Neither does Sam, her daughter and his stepdaughter. But that may change, now that another old friend, Miles Bridgeman, has resurfaced in his life.
Kunzru, a London native, tells the story through interwoven narratives. One is set in the present, which is 1998, and begins with Michael's departure for France. Another begins a year earlier, when he was in France with Miranda and thought he saw Anna. A third focuses largely on his life as Chris from 1968 to 1971. The novel dwells so heavily on the third narrative, however, that the other two virtually disappear.
The emphasis on the distant past is a particular weakness, as the driving mystery of the novel is whether Michael will find Anna in France when he returns there, action that occurs in the present. An effort in the final chapter to merge the narratives and revive the present fails, although not because the mystery is unresolved. Instead, too much of the story comes too late in the telling, and the present remains nearly nonexistent despite the effort and however vital it might have been structurally and thematically to the novel.
With the present so scant, Kunzru never seizes his best opportunity to reflect on terrorism today. Further, even if he had paid more attention to the present, setting it in 1998 would have limited his reflection. Why this novel was not set after Sept. 11, like other current terrorism novels, remains as much a mystery as the fate of Anna, who by the early 1970s had devolved from radical to terrorist. She supposedly died in a 1974 hostage siege at the West German embassy in Copenhagen, but it was difficult to identify her burned body.
Kunzru also faced a challenge in writing seriously about the '60s, a time whose vernacular nowadays comes off as sloganeering. For example, Chris says at a student protest: "It felt good to see a familiar face, a reminder that I was there for a reason, part of something larger than myself." All told, "My Revolutions" falls short.
Robert Braile reviews regularly for the Globe.