Everything Beautiful Began After

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 September, 2011, 12:00am


Everything Beautiful Began After
by Simon Van Booy
Beautiful Books

Simon Van Booy is a philosopher, essayist and acclaimed short story writer who, in 2009, won the prestigious Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award for Love Begins in Winter. Now Van Booy has published his debut novel - and, as a haunting meditation on desire, death and renewal, it does not disappoint.

Everything Beautiful Began After takes place in Athens, 'long a place where lonely people go'. Here, among the crumbled vestiges of a past empire, now trampled by tourists' feet, the author unashamedly harks back to the seduction of an ancient city. With its emphasis on the role of fate and crushing disaster the novel at times verges on Greek tragedy. But at its core it explores the fragile human connections that we construct with others and how, in a single moment, these can be cruelly severed.

Rebecca, a French artist, George, an American linguist, and Henry, a British archaeologist, have all come to Athens one hot summer to escape their damaged pasts. Their paths cross and in a sweet, sometimes funny, exploration of youthful discovery they muddle through love, sex and eventually friendship, forming a tender trio. Then, half-way through the novel, an earthquake shakes the city and everything that came before is shattered.

Each of the three protagonists is painted with a loving brush by the author, who delights in their quirks and flaws. Rebecca is a flame-haired beauty and former air hostess at Air France who, bored of putting on faces for passengers, travels to Greece to paint. Henry, while digging up buried bones, is attempting to lay to rest the death of his own baby brother. But it is George who Van Booy relishes the most: an alcoholic with a poetic temperament, George is perpetually overdressed and stays awake all night at cafes reading international newspapers and drinking grainy Greek coffee spiked with liquor. Above all, he craves human closeness.

There is something reminiscent of T.S. Eliot in Van Booy's depiction of loneliness, which is a major theme of the novel. Like Eliot, Van Booy is a master of language, painting a million tiny tragedies and hopes in staccato sentences and small moments.

Van Booy is also unafraid to experiment. Everything Beautiful Began After is really a book of two halves: the first is a sentimental and lyrical love story; the second jumps to the second-person point of view. It is a bold and jarring move, used to portray the dumbfounded grief of those who must live on. Around this, the author scatters unorthodox devices, inserting the story into copies of handwritten postcards and letters tapped on a typewriter.

Despite this, the novel has flaws. Van Booy can be seduced by the beauty of his own language, sometimes forgoing sense for sentences that merely sound good. Some more minor characters - such as the buffoonish Professor Peterson, an eccentric archaeologist - verge on cliches.

But these are small gripes in an otherwise exquisite narrative. Everything Beautiful Began After is really about death - the death of youth, innocence, life and civilisations. To these hard facts Van Booy gives a soulful lyricism, eschewing grittier realities while also portraying the sheer shock of loss. This novel may not always be an easy read but it is an unfailingly beautiful one.