The Air We Breathe by Andrea Barrett

29/03/08, The Times

While the Great War rages in Europe, Tamarack State Sanatorium for the Treatment of Tuberculosis, in the forested hills of the Adirondacks in upstate New York, seems sealed off from the world outside. Here, patients come for their rest-and-rich-diet cure and include people from all classes and backgrounds. There is Miles Fairchild, wealthy industrialist, who stays at Mrs. Martin’s well-heeled house, but there are also charity patients, such as Leo Marburg and Ephraim Kotov, Jewish refugees from Odessa and Minsk, respectively, and a whole choir of initially unnamed people, mostly European immigrants, a collective ‘we’, who narrate the novel.

Time hangs heavy and boredom gnaws away at them. Miles’s idea to start a weekly discussion group involving all the residents is met with cynicism first, not least because of the class difference between him and the rest, and his blindness to their receptivity and mental worlds. But as others begin to contribute to these discussions – the resident radiologist, Irene Piasecka, on the theory of relativity, Arkady on communitarian and cooperative colonies in New England at the turn of the century – a sense of society begins to blossom very gradually. Meanwhile, Mrs. Martin’s daughter, Naomi, dreaming of escape from her life of drudgery serving the patients, offers herself as driver to Miles in the hope of earning some extra money that will facilitate her flight from Tamarack State. Miles falls for Naomi but she is besotted by Leo while Leo has eyes only for Eudora, Naomi’s best friend and also a carer in that community.

As the year turns to 1917, and President Wilson asks Congress for a declaration of war, the bubble in which the residents move around, bursts. A shrill patriotism begins to see threats from foreigners, especially German and Central European ones. Vigilantism is not far behind and Tamarack State can no longer remain untouched by the fires raging outside.

The Air We Breathe is Andrea Barrett’s eighth book and a disappointing one, especially when set beside her achievements in that beautiful collection of stories, Ship Fever, where she made the world of science aspire to the condition of music in her prose, or in The Voyage of the Narwhal, an astonishing adventure novel about an Arctic voyage that also touched on the deepest recesses of human nature. While very few writers have mastered the historical novel as she has, with her effortless, unshowy yet perfect grasp of detail, The Air We Breathe is marred by an odd narratorial style, skittering between unobtrusive omniscient narration and a Greek-chorus-style first person plural telling, purportedly the voice of the group of charity patients. The latter becomes more evident as the novel progresses but this makes more urgent the question of how this collective could be in possession of certain information without the gift of omniscience. The sutures between the two show badly and a large cast of characters means some are no more than proper nouns on the page. It’s an oddly inert novel but her recreation of time and place still remains glittering.