In Andrew Miller's third novel, Oxygen, the award-winning author of Ingenious Pain offers an intense, claustrophobic tale of parallel lives, of regret and redemption.
A family reunion of sorts is underway in the summer of 1997 for Alice, a newly retired, long-widowed schoolteacher, dying of cancer at her home in the English countryside. Gathered at her side are her two sons: Alec, a myopic, indecisive translator, and the more gregarious Larry, an unemployed TV soap star whose glittering U.S. career is about to take a nosedive into the shabby territory of porn films, so he can stave off bankruptcy and hold on to his disintegrating marriage. The counterpoint to this scenario is Laszlo Lazar, Hungarian exile and feted playwright, whose latest work, Oxygen, Alec is translating. Lazar, who has a comfortable existence in one of the more fashionable Paris quartiers, seems to possess everything that Alec does not: critical success, a loving partner, a longstanding circle of artistic friends. Yet Lazar is tormented by memories of the 1956 uprising and a comrade he feels he betrayed. When a political splinter group asks him to undertake a mysterious mission, he seizes his chance to atone for the past.
Shifting between a quintessentially English idyll, the carousing bars of Paris, the physical and emotional aridity of California, and a Budapest of the past and present, Miller skillfully evokes his characters' stories and their common theme--the liberation of self--even if the end result is self-destruction. He writes compassionately of the terminally ill Alice, clinging to the last vestiges of life, the last agonizing breath: "Was that the last to go? Certain gestures, reflexes, a way of cocking the head or moving the hands in speech?" He reminds us that human beings have choices, even in despair, and he provides a suitably ambiguous ending to round off a wise and engrossing novel. --Catherine Taylor, Amazon.co.uk