With the centenary of the First World War upon us – not to mention the ongoing conflicts in Gaza, Ukraine, Iraq, and elsewhere – a story like Quartet for the End of Time, which explores the impact of war on identity, memory, family, love, and faith, seems appropriately timed.
Johanna Skibsrud’s second novel (her first being the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize winner, The Sentimentalists) begins in the tumultuous years leading up to the Second World War. In episodic fashion, the novel describes the lives of three Americans – Douglas, and siblings Sutton and Alden – as they become embroiled in the political and ideological machinations of the time. Uniting the three characters is a lie that leads to a grievous miscarriage of justice in the wake of the 1932 Bonus Army riot in Washington, D.C. The trio is ultimately scattered across the U.S. and parts of Europe, placing them in the path of further turmoil as the Second World War erupts.
Quartet for the End of Time takes its title from a piece of music by French composer Olivier Messiaen (who, along with Ernest Hemingway, makes a brief appearance in Skibsrud’s novel). Messiaen’s work, written and performed during his wartime imprisonment, defies conventional rhythm and metre, and thus reflects a time of desolation and ruin.
In the same way, and to mixed effect, Skibsrud’s novel frequently does away with conventional plot and pacing, challenging the notions of time as linear and memory as reliable. Much of the prose is presented in a dense, formal way, and there are moments of quite beautiful description. But long, labyr-inthine digressions into memory and sense impressions (in what is already an overly long and rather disjointed novel) tend to distance the reader from the characters and give the story a directionless feel. The ponderousness of the language, along with the need for a more robust connection between the first and second halves of the novel, prevents Quartet for the End of Time from living up to its potential.