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Absent Friends

S.J. Rozan

Delecourt Press/Bantam Dell/Random House

US Hardcover First

ISBN: 0-385-33803-1

367 Pages; $24.00

Publication Date: September 28, 2004

Date Reviewed: November 16, 2004

Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2004



General Fiction, Mystery


The events of 9/11 forever changed our perception of the world. An event of such major proportion also, of course, begs for exploration by fiction and non-fiction authors, writers who set their talent and perspective to probing, describing, analyzing and culling their unique brand of truth from that event in the years that follow. S.J. Rozan's 'Absent Friends' is a story of truth and illusion, reality and perception, and pain and loss among childhood friends; it also may well be the definitive 9/11 story - the human one, not the political one.

'Absent Friends' is the tale of seven friends who grew up together in the wholesome town of Pleasant Hills on Staten Island. The boys, Tom, Jimmy, Jack and Markie, and the girls, Vicky, Sally and Marian, form lifelong bonds of friendship and love through shared childhood experiences and shared kids-only secrets; those bonds are tested much later by marriage, divorce, death and adults-only reality. In 2001, Jimmy, now in his mid-40s and already a well-known NY fireman, is killed during rescue efforts in the World Trade Center. When writing of Jimmy's heroic acts, aging newspaper muckraker Harry Randall comes upon the seeds of scandal, seeds buried deeply in a single night's activities in Pleasant Hills twenty years earlier. After Harry's suicide, his lover, writer Laura Stone, pursues the investigation. Laura believes that Harry's death was murder, not suicide; above all, Laura believes in the power of "the truth". The surviving friends unite and grieve, explore and question as they confront the allegations of scandal and unbury the past. "The truth" is indeed powerful, but rarely crystal clear, and "the truth" is not always pretty.

Rozan narrates her story from multiple points of view, those from the past and those in the present. She moves from set-piece to set-piece, each exquisitely successful in unmasking a piece of the puzzle, and equally successful in unmasking a piece of the person. From childhood stories to adult ones, from recollections of the past to recriminations in the present, from stories remembered and recited to stories long suspected but left untold, Rozan braids myriad pieces seamlessly together to propel the narrative. The experiences of childhood, the traits of personality either nourished or punished, inform the actions of adulthood. And those actions, in turn, are impacted and irretrievably altered by the forces of the world and the finality of a terrorist act.

'Absent Friends' is a tremendous and fulfilling character-driven novel on its own and easily excels without its NY setting. By positioning the present-day events midst the realities of post-911 New York, Rozan enhances that narrative with a vivid and heart-breaking chronicle of a momentous time and place. Her perceptive and observant prose details the ash and rubble, the smoke and the smell, the unsettled and forlorn air of a war-torn lower NY. Her characters look at the altered NY skyline from the Staten Island ferry - or they choose not to look. They glimpse Ground Zero at unsuspecting moments and are startled, and then reminded. They find solace in a local bar that remains standing, but must find a new place for coffee, or for lunch. They walk in streets now closed to cars, past posters picturing those now forever lost. The post-911 reality is always there, always visible, its impact ever-present and always jarring. A New Yorker will read these words and relive those days; those of us who are not New Yorkers will read them and experience those days with an intensity and understanding not gleaned from news clips or still photos.

Rozan is an exquisite prose artist. Her language is pure and eloquent, stylistically complicated and emotionally intense but never flamboyant. By minutely observing every detail, Rozan infuses small, simple moments with haunting significance. She describes her characters from the outside looking in, and again from the inside looking out, and by so doing, they take on an intensity and fullness that is wholly absorbing. Rozan squeezes a pure emotional truth out of nuance and subtle detail. Hers is prose to read slowly and to savor.

'Absent Friends' characters are rich and complex, smart and articulate, and, as are us all, flawed. Rozan sifts through the lives of these characters like workmen sifting through the rubble of Ground Zero, uncovering the poignant, the sad, and the loss of what was and the hope of what will come. With perfectly-pitched prose, Rozan unfolds her story slowly, sustaining interest, but preserving the power and pleasure of dawning understanding and discovery. 'Absent Friends' is all that a novel should be -- powerfully involving, emotionally true, and linguistically accomplished. It's not to be missed.