In her 13th novel, Jane Smiley focuses on the interior of human relationships while the big guns of history boom off-stage, writes Stephanie Merritt

The events of Jane Smiley’s 13th novel, Private Life, are bookended by great conflicts on the world stage: from Missouri in 1883, where the rifts of the civil war remain fresh in local memory, to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1942. The years in between are also dotted with historic landmarks – the 1905 San Francisco earthquake, the Great War and the Spanish flu epidemic, the development of Einstein’s theory – but although these events touch the lives of Smiley’s characters, sometimes directly, theirs is an interior drama, played out within the stifling confines of a marriage.

Margaret Mayfield grows up in late 19th-century Missouri, the second of three surviving daughters from a family already touched repeatedly by grief; by the time she is of marriageable age, her two older brothers and her father have died. Left in a situation that will be familiar to readers of Jane Austen, Margaret’s mother, Lavinia, devotes her energies to marrying off her daughters respectably.

Smiley recreates in meticulous detail the limited prospects society at this time offered women: bred to be wives and mothers, they are regarded as dangerously superfluous if those roles fail to materialise. Money offers the only alternative to this sclerotic culture, where even the worst kind of marriage is preferable to none. Only Margaret’s sister-in-law, Dora, dares to try something different. Plain and clever (and, more pertinently, an heiress), she heads to New York to become a journalist, living in a style that would scandalise the sedate ladies of the Missouri knitting circles.

Margaret, faced with the prospect of becoming an old maid at 27, allows herself to be steered towards marriage with Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early. Early is the most famous son of their small town, an eminent scientist and naval officer whose astronomical discoveries have earned him international recognition. His oddness is ascribed by the Missouri matrons to his genius, but once they are married and moved to a naval base in the San Francisco bay, Margaret begins to uncover faultlines in her husband’s character.

Although the pace and tone could hardly feel more different from Smiley’s last novel, Ten Days in the Hills, set in modern-day Los Angeles, here again her gaze is trained on the interior of human relationships while the big guns of history boom off-stage. Marriage and family life, and the intricate web of fissures that spreads beneath the surface, are Smiley’s territory, most familiar from her 1991 Pulitzer-winner A Thousand Acres, but Private Life treats these familiar subjects with added scope and depth.

Glimpsed in the prologue, the shadow of the last war stretches over the narrative, so that the latter half of the novel feels like an inexorable progression for the characters towards fates already revealed. Private Life is also a novel rich in symbolism: the Japanese paintings given to Margaret by her friend Mr Kimuru, which acquire layers of significance; the public hanging she is supposed to have seen at the age of five. With beauty and tenderness, Smiley draws together all these threads and weaves them into a moving reflection on the forces, great and small, that coincide to shape a life. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds