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Originally published Friday, July 6, 2012 at 5:33 AM

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'The World Without You': a family in the wake of grief

Joshua Henkin's novel "The World Without You" chronicles the lingering effects of the death of a beloved youngest child in Iraq on a family as they gather in the Berkshires for a memorial service over the July 4 weekend. Henkin will read Monday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Joshua Henkin

The author of "The World Without You" will read at 7 p.m. Monday, Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or
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In the burgeoning genre of Iraq-war-era literature, Joshua Henkin's third novel, "The World Without You" (Pantheon, 321 pp., $25.95), shows a family grieving for their lost son and brother, the beloved youngest child of Marilyn and David Frankel. Not a soldier, Leo Frankel was a journalist killed in Iraq in 2004.

A year later, his family is gathering at their summer place in the Berkshires on the July 4 weekend for a memorial service. The novel covers three days of family interactions but also illuminates decades of the family's story. Tensions between Leo's older sisters, between the sisters and their own husbands and partners, between Leo's widow and his parents, and between the Frankel parents reveal the whole culture of this family.

Henkin is a master at letting his characters emerge in subtle but captivating ways. Especially interesting are Noelle and her husband, also an American-born Jew, who have moved to Israel to become Orthodox Jews. They can't eat off her secular Jewish parents' plates, and they reject even the kosher food her father has prepared and the kosher plate set intended to make her family feel welcome.

Noelle and Amram have four young sons, and their crackling drama as a couple gives the house and the novel a bursting, crowded feeling. Amram could have been a buffoon of a character, but he is not, and his disappearance for several days of the weekend effectively heightens their marital tension. There is an edge of humor in their exchanges, but not only humor: depth and patience as well.

Their oldest son, Akiva, age 8, is a basketball fan, and his apprehension of why his American-born parents have chosen to live in Israel is charming. "He's happy in Israel; it's his home. Yet he believes that his parents, in moving to Jerusalem, voluntarily left heaven for the false consolations of earth. It's as if ... they left the NBA itself."

Clarissa wrestles with infertility. Lily, the middle of the three sisters, snappishly mixes it up with Noelle as soon as she picks her up at the airport. Henkin's portrayals of sibling rivalry and resentment are apt and engaging.

Thisbe, Leo's widow, arrives with 3-year-old Calder. She wonders what her relationships with Leo's family ought to be in the future. Meanwhile, Leo's mother and father are on the brink of a separation. The furious grief that drives Marilyn to write anti-war op-ed pieces is not matched by David's pursuit of cooking classes and stargazing.

Henkin's eye for detail doesn't ever take a rest, so there are occasional scenes that are overwritten, laden with insignificant lists and sometimes dulling detail. Microscopic and outside the focus of the characters themselves, these details contribute nothing to the themes or emotional texture of the novel.

Even so, Henkins' prose is up to the challenge of showing the intimacy of the three generations, and how the past with Leo in it has brought them to this pass with Leo gone. This is a deeply woven and affecting novel about grief and its effects on the lives going forward.

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