“Correspondents” is a wonderfully complex and ambitious novel that manages to handle a wide cast of characters and multiple settings with both intimacy and clarity. It also happens to be partially set in the Merrimack Valley.
The book’s author, Tim Murphy, currently resides in Brooklyn, New York. He has an impressive pedigree as a writer and editor, and has worked for a number of national publications, including POZ and New York magazines and the New York Times. This is his second novel. His first, “Christodora,” centered around an apartment building in New York’s East Village and employed a similar time-hopping technique to the one used to great effect in “Correspondents.”
Murphy grew up in North Andover, and the regional connection is clear from the book’s cover: Look closely and you might recognize Lawrence’s Ayer Mill Clock Tower. Lawrence (actually a slightly fictionalized version of it, called Lawton in the novel) is central to Murphy’s balancing act. He writes across decades, detailing the family histories of multiple characters but ultimately focusing on Rita Khoury, a smart, cosmopolitan war reporter of Irish and Lebanese ancestry, and her translator, Nabil, an Iraqi who’s fighting to come to terms with the legacy of U.S. occupation and Saddam Hussein. Nabil is also young and gay — his awakening sexual consciousness is set against a background of repression and the threat of violence.
Murphy has a reporter’s eye for detail, and he is able to drop us into the plot at various critical points in 20th and 21st century world history without making the reader feel the constant need to reach for Wikipedia. (I’ll admit that as much as I enjoy Lebanese food, I occasionally had to look up the name of an unfamiliar dish. The book made me hungry.)
The author has the remarkable ability to make what might otherwise be a tangled mess of timelines, ethnicities and personalities into something that feels immediate and real. The book’s quieter moments, when characters develop crushes or play with family on the beach during vacation, feel as vivid as the dramatic passages, in which some of the darkest themes of our present decade are brought into cruel focus. While the characters are diverse, they aren’t stereotypical, and even minor figures are presented with depth of character.
The book reveals delicate sets of tensions between the world we know here in the Merrimack Valley and a wider global setting. The title, “Correspondents,” suggests something of what the writer is up to. Correspondents are, of course, journalists, and the central protagonists work in the news media. But it is also about corresponding patterns relating to immigration, ambition, trauma, family, faith, love and friendship. This is very much, and in the best way, a novel of its time, even as it leaps through the years at a page-turning clip.
mvm readers will take particular pleasure in the regional details. You’re as likely to turn the page and find yourself in Derry or Nashua as San Diego or Damascus. But I also expect, and hope, that readers will have their sense of the Valley as a sometimes provincial or slightly isolated cultural region complicated by a spiderweb of connections with global history and politics.
By the end, I didn’t want to leave the world of these characters. I felt invested in their lives. I also wondered how on earth the author was going to resolve the complicated plot in a satisfying way. Without any hints at how it unfolds, I will say that Murphy, who writes in an understated and factual style appropriate for someone with a reporting background, saves some of his most poetic and profound writing for the final pages. The ending is one to savor.