Small Hours

Jennifer Kitses

Published by Grand Central Publishing 13 June 2017

288pp, hardback, $26

Reviewed by Elsbeth Lindner

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Just how many bad decisions can an individual make in a single day? Let’s ask Tom and Helen, the married couple at the heart of Small Hours, whose relationship is already founded on a number of poor choices and secrets. Tom still hasn’t managed to find the right moment to share with Helen the fact that he has a love child with an ex-mistress. And Helen hasn’t totally forgiven herself for arm-twisting Tom into having two daughters when he didn’t want children, as well as pushing him to move out of New York City, to a small town in the Hudson Valley with a commute time of 90 minutes.

Kitses’ schema is to cram this family’s dilemmas and possible resolutions into a twenty-four-hour time frame. So, chapters – labelled with the time, like a ticking clock – both exist here in the now, with a whole slew of incoming events, while simultaneously ballooning to include past passions, regrets and failures. Not just questions of loyalty and fidelity, but money, employment, aggression, sex, food, even life and death roll through this eventful day and night. Tom nearly loses his job and his secret daughter, while Helen gets into potentially violent stand-offs and earns the disapproval of her neighbors.

As straitjackets go, Kitses’ choice of form is quite a tough one and yet she manages to make it work, balancing past and present while moving events forward and maintaining suspense through a succession of twists. Inevitably there are moments of fatigue when the reader seeks gratification rather than ceaseless procrastination, but these become subsumed in the overall readability of the prose. And the book is short.

Kitses is a deft writer, capable of contrasting the mixed social fortunes of a small decaying town with the thrumming pressures of a metropolitan workplace, and the complicated fortunes of individual souls – workers, partners, offspring. As debuts go – and additions to the expanding niche of parenting novels set on the Hudson Metro North Line – this one is better than merely readable. Perhaps in her second book the author will relax the formal boundaries and allow herself to expand a little further.

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