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Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Speak Now by Kaylie Jones

Kaylie Jones gives new meaning to the term “sympathetic characters”. Her fifth novel, recently reissued on paperback, wrings out tears on nearly every page; if its purpose is to lump its readers’ throats up, then Speak Now succeeds. Thankfully, there’s more going on here. Jones’s capacity to hover so dangerously close to melodrama without ever quite stooping is a wonder in itself. The characters are real; their pain is real. The sad-violin moments are earned, in other words, and the novel is a devastating exercise in human fragility.

The trauma runs deep. We’ve got a protagonist in her mid-30s named Clara, who was raised by two Holocaust survivors: Victor, her father, and Anya, a woman whose life Victor saved in Auschwitz, and who has raised Clara since Clara’s mother died in childbirth. As if the pathos of living in a home stained by the Holocaust wasn’t enough, Clara has a dead womb, a stalker, and a drug and alcohol problem, not to mention a stressful work environment. She helps run a battered women’s shelter, where she deals daily with other women’s problems yet can’t seem to face her own. Jones pairs Clara off with Mark, also a former drug addict and recovering alcoholic. Mark has a violent father, a late twin brother who died of an overdose, and an unshakable beef with local hoods. Yeah, and you thought your life was bad.

Clara and Mark are both utterly desperate. Their sobriety is tenuous, as are their slices of happiness. Either of them could relapse any day, any moment. Plagued by the insecurities linked to pasts they can’t seem to escape, every day is a renewed struggle — not only for these two main characters, but also for Niko, Clara’s stalker of 20 years, who is given a sympathetic backstory that explains (without excusing) his obsession, and thereby avoids flat villainization.

Jones’s prerogative is to problematize history on the both the personal and universal levels. “Why won’t the past just go away?”, Clara wonders as Mark’s old nemeses become a revived threat just her life with him seems to be settling down. Gratuitous use of flashbacks works here to emphasize the perpetuity of the past. The novel suggests that, if not faced — if only medicated away, as both Clara and Mark have been wont to do — shadows of the past will permeate the present.

These two characters find themselves trapped within and constantly reliving their painful histories. As Clara and Mark fight to keep their new life together from being tarnished by past suffering, their memories take physical form in Niko, whose reappearance wreaks havoc in Clara’s life, and Mark’s father, whose impending death forces Mark to face his long-repressed demons.

On the universal level, Jones gives us Auschwitz, hinting that, just as Clara and Mark must face their pasts, so must we as global citizens. “The whole world [has] blood on its hands,” Clara thinks as she is ruminating on her father’s experience as a political prisoner in Auschwitz. Jones based Victor’s and Anya’s memories on eye-witness testimonies in published memoirs and histories. Such horrors cannot be denied away; nor, Jones implies, should they be invented.

While working, for the most part, to create a mood of dull pain, Jones’s sparse prose sometimes suffers from flatness. Dialogue, too, can be a bit empty and up in the air. For instance, when Mark proposes, he delivers a short monologue without any descriptive breaks, leaving his voice cold and emotionless. And for a novel that’s one-third psychological thriller, its climax is disappointingly anticlimactic. But I shan’t go further, for fear of breaking the cardinal rule of reviewing.

Speak Now is a modest novel, one that asks big questions without a heavy hand. It’s a novel devoid not only of literary pretension, but also, in a sense, of character. There’s nothing idiosyncratic about Jones’s modus operandi. The book is well plotted and well written — its conflicts well dramatized, its themes well evoked — but Jones’s aesthetic is fairly conventional. No rules broken, nothing new tried. The book is less interesting as an artistic work because of this, but, well, maybe modesty is the most direct path to humility. The novel is nothing if not a humble reminder of forgotten history’s recursiveness, and on these terms, it succeeds.