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The spaces between – ‘The Wanderers’

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Compelling novel defies easy categorization

There’s something to be said for books that defy easy categorization. For those of us whose reading appetites aren’t genre-bound, it can be an interesting experience to consume the kind of literature that would be at home in multiple sections of your local bookstore or library.

Granted, that genre ambiguity can bleed into a book’s overall quality, rendering it a mishmash that fails in generating any real impact on the reader. And in fact, that’s often precisely how it plays out. But when a book is buoyed by that defiance, it’s a delight to behold.

Meg Howrey’s “The Wanderers” (G.P Putnam’s Sons, $27) is possessed of the right kind of ambiguity; it’s a novel that is part sci-fi adventure and part interpersonal drama, told from multiple perspectives in a well-woven narrative tapestry that embraces its influences even as it defies being defined by them.

In the near future, a private aerospace corporation called Prime is putting the pieces together for the first manned mission to Mars. The final step is the biggest – assembling and preparing the team of astronauts that will undertake the historic journey.

To that effect, Prime brings together three astronauts – American Helen Kane, Russian Sergei Kuznetsov and Japan’s Yoshi Tanaka. This trio has been chosen for their compatibility – both in terms of their skill sets and their personalities – but there’s only so much that can be determined from psych evaluations and resumes.

The solution? Seventeen months devoted to the most realistic simulation ever created. Helen, Sergei and Yoshi are to be constantly under observation by Prime teams – known colloquially as Obbers – as they attempt to successfully navigate a multitude of obstacles in order to prove their respective worthiness to be part of the real Mars mission.

However, the lines between the real and the imagined begin to blur. The mission might be simulated, but the pressures are not. As the days bleed into weeks bleed into months, each member of the trio finds themselves slowly, inexorably changing.

And so too do the people left behind. Helen’s daughter Meeps is a struggling actress with complex feelings about her famous mother. Sergei’s son Dimitri is a teenager coming to terms with his identity in the shadow of his father. And Yoshi’s wife Madoka is a robotics executive unsure of who she is or what she wants from her husband. We even get the perspective of Luke, one of the Prime Obbers who has his own complex relationship to the proceedings.

As the pretend journey begins to feel all too real, everyone involved is forced to confront the truth about what the great vastness of outer space truly means … as well as the fact that the span of inner space might be even greater.

For Howrey to produce a book like this one is both surprising and completely in character. She’s clearly unbound by genre; her previous offerings include a novel about a boy reuniting with his father (“Blind Sight”) and another about sisters in the professional dance world (“The Cranes Dance”), as well as a pair of weirdo historical fiction novels co-authored under the shared pseudonym Magnus Flyte (“The City of Dark Magic” and “The City of Lost Dreams”). A novel about the emotional underpinnings of a simulated Mars mission makes as much sense for a follow-up as anything else.

Really, the primary commonality connecting Howrey’s previous works is the fact that they’re all excellent books. And “The Wanderers” is very much in keeping with that thread.

The sci-fi structure here is quite compelling, with a plausibility that is often lost when telling a tale like this one. But it’s Howrey’s ability to delicately unspool the psychological underpinnings of her characters and their relationships that truly makes this story shine. She has a powerful knack for constructing believably complex interpersonal dynamics, webs of feeling that spread and intertwine to enwrap different characters while impacting them in different ways. She also avoids the potential pitfalls that come with utilizing multiple narrators, weaving together the various perspectives seamlessly.

“The Wanderers” isn’t a book that one could easily pigeonhole. It is smart and heartfelt and funny and sad, marked with a sophisticated simplicity. The truth is that no matter the genre in which you might place it, there’s only one label that fits it just right. And it’s the only label that matters.

Exceptional.

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