DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Jill Ciment's new novel, called "The Body In Question," is less than 200 pages. Nevertheless, our book critic Maureen Corrigan says it packs an extramarital affair, a murder trial, end-of-life reckonings and lots of wit and sharp observations into tight quarters. Here's her review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Jill Ciment is one of those just-under-the-radar writers. Probably her biggest moment of popular recognition came a few years ago when her novel "Heroic Measures" was made into a film called "5 Flights Up." It starred Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman as a married couple living in New York City who struggle to get their dog to the vet in the midst of a terror alert. They wind up carrying their dog on a cutting board through the panicked city.
That deft orchestration of absurdity and existential dread distinguishes Ciment's style. That's why the situation of Ciment's latest novel, "The Body In Question," is so perfectly suited to her powers as a novelist. She's writing here about jurors - bored, drowsy and horny jurors - sequestered together as they serve on a gruesome high-profile murder case in central Florida. The droll and the horrifying mingle in the flat air of the courtroom and the limbo of the jurors' lounge.
Ciment zooms in on two members of the jury. There's Graham, a single, 42-year-old anatomy professor, and Hannah, our main character, a 52-year-old former Rolling Stone photographer who's married to a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist in his 80s. Though she doesn't quite admit it to herself, Hannah wants a break from caretaking. She deeply loves her husband, but a sequestered murder trial that could potentially go on for weeks seems to her like not such a bad thing. Here's Ciment's third-person narrator conveying Hannah's ruminations about her husband after the judge asks that any potential jurors who have pressing responsibilities at home raise their hands.
(Reading) Though Hannah's husband maintains his impressive curious mind, he loses things daily - keys, words, height, mass, the ability to hear conversations, his peripheral vision, the subtlety of taste and the assault of smell. And most alarmingly, her husband isn't always sure where his hands and feet are without having to look for them. Hannah is becoming his co-pilot. Her senses must work double-time, shepherding two separate bodies through space. But to refuse the job - not to point out the broken step, not to repeat the punch line he couldn't hear - will mean abandoning her husband in the woolly, dim, mute isolation of old age.
By not raising her hand, Hannah passively chooses to do just that, temporarily abandon her husband. Somewhat more actively, she and Graham, the anatomy professor, begin a flirtation, paddling in the pool together at the Econo Lodge where they're sequestered, making eye contact over court-subsidized dinners at TGI Fridays. In no time, they're tiptoeing into each other's motel rooms at night. But all this secrecy is for naught. The other jurors - among them, the guy with the buzz cut and the blonde with the cornrows and flip flops - aren't as obtuse as they seem. Those jurors aren't sure yet if the defendant is guilty, but they know that Graham and the adulterous Hannah most certainly are.
And what of that murder trial? Ciment could have crafted a fine standalone suspense novel out of the details of the grisly case the jurors here are deciding. In brief, a wealthy teenage girl is accused of setting her baby brother on fire. As the days of testimony go on, however, it becomes murkier as to whether the mostly silent chocolate bar-munching defendant - who is on the autism spectrum - or her dominating twin sister or the sister's creepy boyfriend is the actual murderer.
How to judge? We're told that Hannah doesn't consider herself a judgmental person, though judge she does - all the time. She judges her friend and colleague who got a MacArthur grant for her random, blurry snapshots. She judges her mother for choosing cruel boyfriends. But this judgment is something else entirely. This judgment is as close as mortals get to God.
All of this could be the stuff of melodrama. But Ciment's incisive language turns "The Body In Question" into a profound story about mortality and the mysteries of human behavior. By trial's end, we're told that Hannah and the other jurors have run out of small talk and can no longer abide one another's company without alcohol. But as a reader, I happily could have been sequestered for a while longer within the confines of Ciment's smart and disturbing novel.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Body In Question" by Jill Ciment. On tomorrow's show, as the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing approaches, we talk with Charles Fishman about how unprepared America was when the space race began and how much of the Apollo program was improvised - from hand-wired computers to spacesuits designed by Playtex. His new book is "One Giant Leap." Hope you can join us.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our reviews and interviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF A BIG YES AND A SMALL NO'S "PHOTO FINISH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.