Before he committed suicide in 2000, author H.S. Bhabra had wanted his only literary novel to be retitled Faust when it was reissued. The publisher demurred after Bhabra's death, because, as is explained in the Foreword, the publisher believed that it would be confusing for the book trade and disappointing for the book's admirers. I think that if I had read this book prior to Bhabra's death and were told of plans to retitle it I too would be disappointed. Gestures is a book to fall in love with, and while by any other name would be as bittersweet, there is something to be said for preservation.
Gestures, the fictional autobiography of a retired British diplomat, is one of the best things I have read in a while and certainly the best book I read this year. The story of dutiful, politic and accomplished Jeremy Burnham, the book is set in pre- and post- World War 2 Europe. It opens in 1920s Venice, where Burnham starts his first foreign diplomatic post. He falls in with a small community of expatriates- worldly and world-weary widow Jane Carlyle, learned and Jewish Anthony Manet, and enigmatic Eva van Woerden, a Dutchwoman of cloudy origins. Anthony's Jewishness is important as a major theme of the book is the origins and effects of anti-Semitism. After a grisly series of events in Venice, the narrative picks up again in post-war Amsterdam where Burnham becomes involved with a shady Dutch industrialist and his daughter, and secrets, romantic entanglements and whispers of tragedy abound.
It all sounds very cinematic and indeed there is a lot of action; the narrative moves along at a good clip despite the weighty themes behind it- love, loss, memory and secrets we keep from ourselves as well as others. Gestures reminded me of that other classic of the self-deluded memoirist, Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier and I may have to re-read that book in the near future. Burnham is a good person and generally likable but he does miss so much. Burnham merely hints at the events of World War 2, particularly the Holocaust, but these facts and their consequences color the twists and turns of the plot so completely it's easy and impossible at the same time to forget that they're there. I think Burnham is in deep, deep denial about the soil the post-war world is built upon and is unable to help his friends, or even empathize, because he is so blind to everything that should be so obvious. He's the epitome of the stiff-upper-lip Brit, preferring the conventional and the safe, and although he cares deeply for Anthony and Jane and his lover Elena he lacks the courage to get too close.
In addition to a page-turning plot, engaging characters and gripping suspense that actually comes with a pretty good payoff, Gestures is characterized by beautiful, highly-skilled writing rendering all of these elements into a breathtakingly accomplished work of fiction. It's shocking to me in a sense that the book isn't more well-known than it is- it was Bhabra's only literary work (he wrote three thrillers as well) and it really is extraordinary. Its beauty and tragedy and sheer luminosity puts some more recent and more acclaimed novels to shame. Why can't they all be this good?
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.