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In a 2021 New York Times essay, Jonathan Lee probed the resurgence of the historical novel untethered from conventions of genre — a vital and groundbreaking form, more than just a dutiful recreation of the past. As he observed: "Perhaps it has its roots in another phenomenon: The present has rarely felt as transitory as it does now."

Here Claire Messud plants her literary flag: Her beguiling, deftly crafted "This Strange Eventful History" vaults across seven decades, from World War II to the aughts, prismed through one family's migrations through five continents as they forge a kind of nucleus, a centeredness, that they all may share.

As the Germans approach Paris, Gaston Cassar, a French naval attaché based in Greece, sends his wife and children to their native Algiers and then decamps to Beirut, striking an uneasy détente with de Gaulle's resistance. His spouse, Lucienne, is his lighthouse during these stormy years; their love seems transcendent but conceals a disquieting secret.

Their son, François, is smart and impetuous while his younger sister, Denise, is flighty, enamored of fancy dresses and fine meals. Yet she commands the Cassars' attention after they reunite in the wake of the war, the tail that wags the dog.

"As a child she had been frail and skittish, her limbs like twigs, her pale blue eyes enormous," Messud writes. "Strange that such apparent fragility should have amounted, really, to a determination of iron; but she had shaped the course of their days as fiercely as any patriarch."

Whether through will or circumstance, the Cassars disperse from Morocco to Geneva to Buenos Aires to Sydney to the United States, an indelible series of journeys and misadventures. François wins a Fulbright scholarship and acceptance to graduate school at Harvard. He falls hard for Barbara, a stolid and beautiful Canadian, and they pack their bags for Europe.

Their marriage rifts beneath the strain of Barbara's father's fatal illness, which pulls her back to Toronto for months at a time, and François' alcoholism. Somehow they patch the cracks and raise their two daughters, including Chloe, the novel's narrator and Messud's surrogate, who comes to the fore in later sections.

The author has tapped her late father's archive, fashioning his biography and hers, into a glorious objet d'art. The book's spine is the French colonization of Algeria, its subsequent struggle for independence and its deleterious impact on the Cassars. Messud's sentences are consistently elegant, if seldom electrifying. (There are twenty-four instances of forms of "elegant", eleven of "glitter.")

Rather, "This Strange Eventful History" moves like a broad river, a Nile or a Mississippi: slow and majestic, rich with the layers of its watershed. It's not a propulsive read, but one to savor, line by line, distilling its mysteries — as François notes of America, "This vast country was also always only ever more unknown, more new."

This Strange Eventful History
This Strange Eventful History

Oceans rise; empires fall; generations clash. Familial bonds shatter and fuse again like femurs. Chloe confronts François's conservative stance on settler-colonialism, the "uncontrollable emanation of her heart" in the face of "her father's calm disquisition," leaving questions of identity and allegiance open-ended.

Messud elevates the personal into the political, her themes spooling out from beneath her sensuous prose. "This Strange Eventful History" is assuredly her masterpiece.

Hamilton Cain, who also reviews for the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post, lives in Brooklyn.

This Strange Eventful History

By: Claire Messud.

Publisher: Norton, 425 pages, $29.99.