Early on in Jane Hamilton's irresistible third novel, Walter McCloud, 38, the wisecracking gay protagonist with the hide of a cynic and the soul of a hopeless romantic, muses that in books death often "either ignites the action or finishes it." But in his experience, Walter says, "death has always been right under my skin, not doing much to move me in any real direction." The death he means is that of his older brother Daniel from cancer 23 years earlier, when both boys were teenagers. Alternating between then and now, the story explores the immediate and enduring effects of that loss.
In Hamilton's brilliant previous novel, A Map of the World, it was a sudden, tragic death that ignited events. Here, the death is lingering, the pace more leisurely, the ripples more subtle. This book is not without its frustrations: The choice of seminal events is at times baffling, and the strands braid together too tidily. But the writing is engaging and, as always, Hamilton digs deep, never settling for easy truths. As she evokes the powerful grip of love, both young and mature, cruel and ecstatic, she reaffirms life. (Random House, $23)