Jesse Ball's third novel, "The Curfew," is not as ambitious, experimental, or beholden to metafictional devices as its predecessors. The new book is more accessible. Shorter too: Samedi the Deafness (Vintage Contemporaries) contains 279 pages of text; The Way Through Doors (Vintage Contemporaries), 228 pages; while the "The Curfew" flows fast at 193 pages. "Samedi" offered readers a hallucinatory cat-and-mouse game, and TWTD presented a whirling dervish of endless tales. A few readers found those books wearying. In contrast, "The Curfew" has at its heart an elemental story of protective love between a father and his eight-year-old daughter. You are likely to be genuinely moved.
That's not to say the author has jettisoned his signature interests. The things Ball does well in all his fiction he continues to do in "The Curfew." He gives readers permission to pay attention. He knows how to conjure up off-kilter and perilous environments (here, a military coup has reduced an American city to a condition of pervasive terror). As before, he relies less on the traditional moorings of the novel and more on his own bizarre and generous wit to propel the story. As usual, he trusts that the reader's own imagination similarly will rise to the occasion. He trusts in silence. He knows how to exploit the design of words on a page -- how the judicious use of empty space, insertions, and irruptions of very large type, can positively serve the story. He has a command of rhythm, which is not a surprise, as Ball is a poet too. His prose, though not at first appearing lyrical, smoothly taps into folk and primitive modes (what we hear in fairy tales, for example) and thereby becomes beautiful.
The reader of "The Curfew" will come upon many a grace note, some bits of wisdom, a little humor: "Magic is either a poverty-stricken necessity or a wealthy fantasy." "She felt as many well-brought-up people do that her life is a collection, that she is always collecting." "The effect of irrational beliefs on your art is invaluable. You must shepherd and protect them." "There's nothing like the embarrassment of cats."
In the final third of the novel a puppet play is staged. I was reminded of Guillermo del Toro's film, Pan's Labyrinth (2006). In both this novel and that movie we are bound to the fate of a bright and sensitive young girl. She has been left to her own devices (one parent lost, the other distant) and now must deal with an uncertain future. In both tales the girl seizes the trappings of fantasy as her best defense against terror and real human misery. Del Toro has told interviewers that elements of his film derive from his childhood experiences with "lucid dreaming." Jesse Ball also practices lucid dreaming (in fact, he teaches a course on the subject at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago). If you're a new reader of Ball, one predictor of your potential enjoyment of "The Curfew" is whether you were enchanted and ultimately moved by "Pan's Labyrinth."
If you've read and liked Ball's other works of fiction, and if you trust where he's going, then I think you'll want to experience how he's developing in this new -- and perhaps transitional -- work.