Haslett's latest novel is a compact tale of lives that revolve around the indisputable gravity of mental illness. Narrated in turns by the three children and two parents of an Anglo-American family alternately living in a leafy Boston suburb (which resembles the author's home town of Wellesley), a summer camp in Maine, and London and its environs, Imagine Me Gone traces the lives of each member from the parents' first encounter over gin and tonics through the children's young adulthood.
Perhaps the most enduring and emblematic episode is early in the tale. The father John has taken Alec and Celia, the two youngest children, out on a rowboat between the island and mainland. He cuts the outboard and ships the oars and tells his two children to imagine that he is gone. Pretend he is not here. How would they save themselves. They resist playing the game but he settles back in the boat and closes his eyes and refuses to respond to them. Panicking, they attempt to row themselves to safety but quickly lose the oars overboard. Shrieking and crying, they try to rouse John, but he refuses to respond.
The mental illness depicted in the novel has a similar form: it is largely unresponsive to the other characters efforts to cure it, and these efforts soon turn to desperation and singularly bad choices.
The novel is slow to build its momentum; the wounded characters are protective of their core traits and feelings; an exhausted indifference permeates them, none more so than the mentally ill older son, though he is redeemed by a sense of humor about his situation, which he recounts as if it were a military operation. Once it achieves some momentum, the imperatives and motives of all became much more clear and resonant, if perhaps the novel goes on one chapter too long.
This is a domestic novel, not a thriller. Character, not plot or tension, drive it. Haslett has done a remarkable job of using obscure pop music as a kind of sound track to bring us back in time, but it is the timelessness of the loss that mental illness entails that most characterizes this tale.