IN THE GARDEN OF THE FUGITIVES
By Ceridwen Dovey
305 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $27.
Ceridwen Dovey’s third book, “In the Garden of the Fugitives,” is an elegant — at times, deceptive — narrative that sifts through the selected memories of two characters. Royce is an elderly wealthy man nearing the end of his life in Boston. Vita, a middle-aged South African woman, once a recipient of his generous fellowship, now lives in a small outback town in Australia. The narrative structure reflects an epistolary exchange (well, email), but the stories Royce and Vita tell each other move beyond the perceived boundaries of the digital missives, almost as if the characters are writing past each other as they reconstruct their somewhat broken personal histories.
During the novel’s opening pages, the reader learns that 17 years earlier, Vita had written Royce and told him never to contact her again, but given his imminent death, he has decided to reach out anyway. Thus begins this bifurcated, confessional-like narrative. Royce largely recounts his unrequited relationship with Kitty Lushington, a college friend whom he followed to Pompeii during the 1970s as she pursued archaeological research at the Garden of the Fugitives, where 13 ancient bodies were entombed under the rain of volcanic ash.
Vita also writes about her earlier years as a college student. Like Dovey, she is a white South African who was born during apartheid, and later moved between Australia and her home country before attending an American university (though unnamed, the school is easily identified as Harvard, where Dovey was an undergraduate). There, Vita grapples with the cultural origins of her identity and her creative pursuits as a filmmaker. “I felt the old vortex of lethargy suck at my soul at being asked to account for myself, my life, with the meaningless markers of dates and geography,” writes Vita.
Dovey, a recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award, has written a novel, “Blood Kin,” and a story collection, “Only the Animals,” both of which animated fictional, allegorical worlds that were removed from her own life experience. With her stories, she crafted inventive narratives told through first-person voices of animals as a way to illuminate moments of human conflict while paying homage to various authors (for example, a mussel speaking in Kerouac-like syncopations right before the bombing of Pearl Harbor). With “In the Garden of the Fugitives,” Dovey pivots the narrative lens onto her own life, and many of the questions that Vita is asking seem to be questions the author is considering herself.