The Illusion of Separateness is a series of stories that shows how important seemingly-small decisions can be in the lives of others, even those we don’t realize are connected to our own. In fact, it is a book of connections, unrealized by those whose lives are interwoven. It’s a lovely book, spanning the latter half of the 20th-century, and takes the reader from the shores of California through the battlefields of WW2-era France and on to England, Scotland and beyond.
The book opens with the story of Martin, now working at a retirement center in Santa Monica. When he was 6 or so, his parents sat him down in their Parisian boulangerie and told him the story of the day during the war when a strange man handed a child to his mother, and how she took that child into a bakery to get something to eat and met his father. We read of the damaged war veteran who teaches a dyslexic neighbour child to read in Manchester, England, in the 80s, of a French child in the 60s who finds a rusted skeleton of a bomber in the fields behind his father’s home and, exploring, comes across a photo of a woman named Harriet on a boardwalk in Coney Island. All these stories are skillfully woven together, and it becomes a joy to find the connections–the French boy who gave pastries to the homeless, the formerly-homeless man who befriends a neighbour child, the man who survived a plane crash and came home to his wife, the American soldier who let a German soldier live and as a result set all these stories in motion, the blind grand-daughter arranging an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art of photographs from ww2, not realizing her grandparents are there.
The Illusion of Separateness is written in the sort of style that is deceptively simple; short sentences that seem to skim the surface, but in reality go deep into the human psyche, exploring the ways we connect with each other and the world. A couple of samples: “He thinks about his life the way a child stands in front of the sea.” (3) “The book of their love would be a chapter of her life.” (56) The sparse, poetic writing and short glimpses into various lives belie the ways that small choices can have enormous consequences.
Was the man carrying Martin his birth father? Will he ever find him again? As Martin closes the eyes of a man dying in the retirement home, he hums a tune from his childhood, and it calms the man. After the death of her grandfather, Amelia reflects on life as a candle, which one day, “vanquished with a last puff,” will leave “nothing but the fragrance of our lives in the world, as on a hand that once held flowers.” (181)
The Illusion of Separateness is a delightful book, heart-warming without being sentimental, taking us into despair but never leaving us there. Highly recommended.