May 1, 2018
Today in paperback: Underground Fugue by Margot Singer
by Melville House
Be full of surreptitious joy: today, with furious enthusaism, we release the paperback of Margot Singer’s debut novel, Underground Fugue.
When we first published the hardcover last spring, the response was swift and huge. At the Washington Post, Ron Charles wrote, “Singer’s novel travels up and down the scale of sorrow, reflecting the musical and psychological connotations of her title… This haunting story… feels suspended in a murky state between memory and presence, happiness and despair.” Publishers Weekly called it “an unusually layered debut” with “strands [that] converge brilliantly.” The New York Times Book Review praised the characters’ “depth and richness.” And, oh yeah, it won Margot an Edward Lewis Wallant Award. Nice.
The action of the book revolves around Esther, who leaves New York after losing a son and ending a marriage, and comes to London to care for her dying mother. Already adjusting to another country and an emotionally fraught situation, she gets to know her new neighbors, an Iranian émigré doctor named Javad and his moody teenage son Amir. Just as they’re becoming more familiar, the 7/7 attacks explode on the London Tube, and everything becomes more complicated.
To make sure you’re appropriately excited, here’s an early excerpt from the book. Esther has just awakened in the middle of her first night at her mother’s house, and steps outside for a smoke…
She gets up and pulls on her dressing gown and slippers, tiptoes downstairs. The house is webbed in shadow, blue and cold and still. She pulls on her raincoat over her robe and fishes a pack of cigarettes out of her purse. She eases open the front door and sits down on the top step, wrapping her coat around her legs.
The parked cars and dark houses across the street float in shadow. The streetlamp emits a faint, high-pitched buzz. A siren dopplers in the distance, not the old nee-nah but an American-style wail. It is cold. She pulls a cigarette out of the pack, flips the lighter. She guesses it is a very un-English thing to smoke out on the street in the middle of the night with a coat over your nightgown like a bum. But there is no one around to see. The tip of the cigarette flares orange in the dark.
Sometimes, in New York, she used to go onto the roof of their building on nights she couldn’t sleep. The tarpaper roof was flat and bare. There were just a couple of sooty planters of bamboo and a few weathered folding chairs. From there, twelve stories above the Upper West Side, she could just make out the dark slash of the Hudson, the red and white streams of taillights flowing south along Columbus, the blank gap of the park. Beyond floated the sodium vapor galaxies of the East Side, Brooklyn, and Queens, a vast sparkling net of lights.
In Noah’s room, the ceiling glowed with constellations they’d stuck up there when he was little, a yellow-green array of plastic stars. His shelves were still lined with his model airplanes, propped on angled stands: B-52 bombers and F-16 fighter jets, a Sopwith Camel and a Gulfstream and a spindle-nosed Concorde. She and Gil had bought the model kits for him, helped him with the early snap-together versions, then just stood by and watched as he hunched over the tiny plastic parts of the more complicated models, surrounded by little bottles of glue and jars of colored paint. It didn’t seem possible that this boy who spilled the cereal and tracked mud onto the living room carpet and didn’t seem to care or even notice whether his shirt was on backwards or inside out could manage such painstaking work. He’d painted the F-16 in jungle camouflage. The Sopwith Camel had targets like a moth’s eyes stenciled on its wings.
On the wall above his bed, Noah had taped a photograph of a jet plane flying above two swirling vortices of cloud. The plane was a thin black boomerang above twin spiral curls, undulating striations of gray and white. It looked almost as if the plane were flying into a tunnel. It was wake turbulence, Noah had explained, waves of air created by the wingtip during lift. The clouds looked to Esther like a strange sea, each vortex the scroll of an Ionic column or an enormous waterspout. The image was beautiful and terrifying. It seemed as if the plane had lost its way, crossed into another dimension of time and space.
She doesn’t hear the footsteps, doesn’t see the figure approaching until he is nearly in front of her, climbing the steps next door. A man. A young man. She draws back into the recess of the doorframe, rubs out her cigarette. Her heart stutters. It is very dark. She hopes he hasn’t seen her. She pulls in her legs and holds her breath.
In the dim illumination of the streetlamp, like a freeze frame caught in a camera’s flash, she registers disjoined details: a black knit cap pulled low, dark hair curling underneath, a black hoodie, boots. An older couple lived next door, or used to. They had no kids. Who was this, then? Panic flushes through her limbs. Jesus. He was breaking in.
He pauses before the door and swings his backpack off one shoulder, turning toward the light. And as he turns, he looks up for just a second, and their eyes connect. His eyes are what she will always remember. She knows them intimately, even though she has never seen this boy before. They are the eyes of a Byzantine icon: large and heavy-lidded, nearly black, intense.
She cannot move. There is a pounding in her head. She is aware of him taking in her bare shins and slippers, the light blue satin of her dressing gown sticking out beneath her coat. She is aware that he is aware that she is looking back at him.
Then he is reaching into the backpack, stepping closer to the door, keys jingling in his hand.
She lets out her breath.
Just sneaking in.
And then he is pulling the door open and stepping inside and the door thumps shut behind him and the London night settles once again around her, strange and cold and dark.