29 JANUARY 2005, Page 26

Self-exiled by bad dreams

Robert Edric

ABOUT GRACE by Anthony Doerr 4th Estate, £15.99, pp. 401, ISBN 0007146973 V £13.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848 About Grace is about David Winkler, a man crippled and made fearful by the accuracy of his dreamed premonitions — a man who foresees future events and who is then constrained to watch them unfold. He dreams of a man killed in an accident and then witnesses that accident. He dreams of meeting his future wife and then encounters her exactly as foretold. And then he dreams of the death by drowning of their one-year-old daughter, Grace — a death in which David Winkler himself plays a large part.

In an effort to forestall this, Winkler decides to leave the only two people he loves, escape to the Caribbean, and live alone there for the next 25 years. After which, increasingly curious, and finally believing himself to be forgiven and redeemed, he returns to America and sets about discovering whether or not his daughter has lived or died.

There is a long and well-worn tradition of the ordinary man turned outsider in American fiction and film (and more recently of the alien outsider turned ordinary); of men at odds with the worlds they inhabit; men — solitary wanderers — with needs and ambitions contrary to those of the societies in which they were nurtured, and in which they believed they would live out their preordained lives; and men who, upon cutting themselves adrift, can then no longer contend with the loss and estrangement which grip them, and which ultimately either destroy them at home or force them to flee and then destroy them a long way from home.

David Winkler is one such man, and in this novel Anthony Doerr has delineated him in all his details, physical and psychological, daily and over the 60 years of his existence, as he moves from the life he believed immutable to the edges of the world and then back to the centre again.

Both the grandeur and the insignificance of life are examined here, along with its constantly changing specific gravity, its checks and balances, its momentum and its inertia. Winkler, a hydrologist and meteo rologist, is a man adrift, at times literally, in oceans of slow unravellings and on clouds of cold evaporations, taunted by the dreamed and real ghosts of unfulfilled expectation, and endlessly prodded by his need to make sense of the unknown past and unknowable future.

And Winkler’s own calculations, wonder and puzzled awe are matched perfectly by Doerr’s prose, a straightforward narration and style finely tuned to its purpose, compelling, balanced and anchored to the solid ground of the story being told; and yet with a finesse, flair and precision equally suited to its grander themes and to the heart and soul of the man at their centre. In reading About Grace I was constantly reminded of both Russell Banks’s Continental Drift and Bob Shacochis’s Easy in the Islands. I can think of no better recommendation.