I loved this story. It's a wonderful, beautifully written tale. I found it compelling from start to finish, and read it very quickly as I couldn't bear to wait to discover what happened. The author has created some lovely characters in Russell and Anat. September 11th 2001 changed many lives. Russell was running late for work at the advertising firm where he was employed, on the 104th floor of the World Trade Centre, New York. Just as he was leaving his apartment, the telephone rang, and after debating it he decided to answer. Upon finding out that his mother has suddenly passed away, and with her gone his brother Ben now has no one but Russell as a carer, he never goes in to work that day. And because of receiving this tragic news in that split second, he lives.
He faces a long journey - with no flights because of the terrible events in NYC - hitch hiking his way back to Norville, Kansas, the place he regards as and refers to as `Nowhere-ville', and thought he had escaped for good when he left six years ago aged eighteen. He can't bring himself to think of it as home anymore. The reactions from the various people he meets on his journey home give us an initial feeling of the shock and response by the man on the street to the enormous events in New York. Further reaction will be evident when Russell arrives home. Everyone in Norville knew Russell as Rusty, and they all know and love his brother Ben, who, although older than Russell, is not capable of living alone, and is reliant on extensive support in his everyday tasks such as getting to his job as a bag packer at the grocery store in the town, getting to bed and up on time. (His dependence is due to an incident which is described in the novel, which I won't spoil here.)
The bulk of the novel is concerned with what happens when Russell is back where he grew up, and how he will possibly come to terms with, and move forward with his life as it is now. He finds himself drawn to the local bakery, run by a young woman named Anat and her father Nazir, and Russell forms a friendship and demonstrates a kindness towards them during a time of unease and unwarranted prejudice shown by some in the town. A few old acquaintances from his school days are now setting off to fight in Afghanistan. Russell has little in common with these men anymore, but despite his feelings about a war, he wishes them well.
Russell has to deal with an enormous amount of stress; he has suddenly lost his mother, he finds himself as sole carer for his brother Ben, he has lost his job and all his colleagues at the advertising firm bar one other survivor, in an incident that he witnessed first-hand from the window of his apartment, and he is back in the small town he thought he had left for good. On top of this, he develops a friendship that causes others to judge him harshly, and feels he may be falling in love, but none of it will be easy.
This is a lovely read. The confusion, challenges and stress that Russell faces are very well detailed and effectively portrayed. The first person narration means we see right to the heart of the matters in hand through Russell's eyes; the pain, the struggles, the hope. He is a remarkable character, he has some impossible things to deal with but that is how life can be, and I liked that. At times he is close to breaking but he keeps going. In fact to me the characters are all so well realised that I could picture them. In my mind I could see Russell and Anat in the bakery chatting over doughnuts, getting to know one other, being a friend to each other. Additionally the author perceptively illustrates how enormous events in the world can filter down and influence and affect one small town and its population in various ways. My favourite novel yet by this author!