"Gone" by Martin Roper

A young couple's life falls apart when the children in their new neighborhood subject them to a mysterious campaign of harassment.

By Suzy Hansen
Published February 21, 2002 10:56PM (EST)

When children want to torment each other they can be more fantastically horrible than adults. Perhaps their hatred shocks because it seems to come from somewhere deep inside, in their bones. And when their victim is an adult, part of the problem is that you can't fight back.

In Martin Roper's first novel, "Gone," Stephen, a painter whose life has been wracked by loss, and his wife, Ursula, move into a Dublin house that they plan to remodel. But the neighborhood children, who dislike the chilly Ursula with her American-sounding accent, besiege them, zeroing in on their modest life with a vengeance. "I can't remember when their language got worse and they went from calling us silly names to more vulgar ones," Stephen muses. "I can't even remember the first broken window ... I watched Larry from the window as he tore the windscreen wipers off the car."

Each rock thrown chips away at Stephen and Ursula's mutual respect. To her, Stephen is toothless. In his eyes, Ursula has abandoned him. The way that Roper chronicles the marriage's disintegration is one of the great, heartbreaking gifts of this book: "I watch her comb her hair at night, as I have done every night for years. The slow rhythmical brushing, the decisive center parting that I loved to watch irritates me." As the two reinforce the floors and rewallpaper the walls of their house, their support for each other crumbles until all that's left is affected civility: "[Ursula's] tone is laden with the kindness offered a stranger who had tripped and fallen in the street."

This, the novel's first, most powerful half, is just another episode in Stephen's lifetime of ungovernable loss. He feels frozen, as if his mother's abandonment of him is being replayed over and over again -- through his young sister's death, Ursula's withdrawal and a new lover's independence. "Gone" is a dark, driven book, but its melancholy is buoyed by Roper's vicious insights; reading them is like being pricked with a tiny pin, a mixture of pleasure and pain, your nerves suddenly awakened.

Stephen leaves for New York, finds an exciting lover, Holfy, and falls for her immediately. But he seems to need love more than he enjoys it, and Roper makes this plain in erotic, often sadomasochistic love scenes. Stephen can't meet Holfy's demands or win her approval: "It's a widening between us. She can enter my world but I cannot enter hers. She tells me to look away from her and the force of the punch knocks me off the bed."

Stephen's first escape from Dublin wasn't enough, and when his New York relationship fails, he runs away, again, this time to the Midwest. There, he remembers perfect moments with Ursula and Holfy in the way that people do when they realize their past relationships were a mistake but they need to justify their foolishness. Retreating into solitude and self-pity, Stephen seems to have found a refuge from what haunts him. That is, until he realizes that people around him are still living, finding contentment in their homes, and it's time to return to his own.

Our next pick: Richard Ford delves the troubled soul of the maritally challenged, middle-aged, upper-middle-class male

Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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