Plot: R.A. Morris's humane and sweeping Beyond What Separates Us ambitiously juggles four different narratives from disparate people around a near-future Earth ravaged by climate change. The novel offers portraits of very different lives in a broken world, balancing scenes of loss and violence with a collectivist hopefulness. That bold structure presents challenges for the reader, though – the novelist establishes a quartet of separate protagonists, each with its own milieu and perspective, in so few pages, while also slowly teasing out the essential worldbuilding details of the book's near future. The problem isn't necessarily that this is too much work for a sympathetic reader to keep track of -- the issue is that nothing in those early chapters demonstrates whether the work will be rewarded. The individual narratives aren't all compelling enough from the start, lacking strong narrative hooks, and several feel repetitive of each other with their stories of desperate journeys, cruel men with guns, and loved ones gone missing. All ultimately have their affecting moments as the novel continues, and the world they reveal is fascinating, but the individual stories progress in fits and starts. The rotating quartet of perspectives sacrifices narrative momentum and urgency in the name of the novel's humanistic perspective.
Prose/Style: The novel's strength is its cross-cultural empathy and the way echoes of the trials faced by a protagonist in Bangalore resonate with the experiences of one in Colombia. The close third-person perspectives of each protagonist persuasively emphasize a shared global humanity and the power of persistence, though the narrative voices do not vary much, with the exception of one character's journal entries. Morris' descriptions of journeys and actions are clear and precise, if a touch wordy; the novelist's handling of violence is mature and outraged.
Originality: Morris' commitment to capturing such disparate voices and lives is admirable. The novel expands the scope of the near-future dystopia to survey how life actually might be lived, around the world. The thread set in Ontario, though, is surprisingly conventional in its dystopic plotting, with that protagonist discovering dark secrets about the government, including its cover-up of the existence of other survivors and the fact that it executed the protagonist's parents.
Character Development: This novel's daring structural demands that its characters be sharply drawn and immediately compelling. Instead, they reveal themselves quite slowly and are unlikely to stir in readers that sense of eagerness to revisit each the next time their perspective chapter comes around.
Date Submitted: August 21, 2020