The problem of alienation -- from others, from one's family, from one's culture and ultimately from oneself -- drives the story of "The Delivery Room," the fourth novel by American-cum-British novelist Sylvia Brownrigg. A stylist of taste and reserve, Brownrigg's prose flows like the literary equivalent of the beige drone of NPR playing in the background -- always rational, modulated and strangely comforting, no matter the trouble being described.
The world of this story centers on the therapy practice of Mira Braverman, a Serbian expatriate happily married to an Englishman, Peter, who is a Russian translator at a university.
The therapy takes place in the sanctity of "The Delivery Room," which is Peter's term for her office in their home on the worn, unglamorous outskirts of London. It's a term loaded with implications for this work -- not only because the core of her patients' concerns seems to go back to, one way or another, the problem of children (having or not having them) but also because Mira essentially delivers them from their problems the way a midwife might assist in a birth, creating a space in which the patients can safely labor.
Mira listens to the travails of each person with all the cool, remote calm of stone. Each patient is safely compartmentalized by his or her label: The American, a frivolous journalist who writes puff pieces. She yearns for a child and searches for a sperm donor however she can find him (or is it really relevance she seeks?). The Mourning Madonna is a well-bred Briton who cannot find a way to stop mourning the loss of her stillborn daughter; her greatest enemy might just be the British cultural tradition of keeping a stiff upper lip.
Then there is Mira's biggest challenge, the Bigot, a belligerent 50-something divorcé who glories in goading her about the brutalities of her countrymen. (The story takes place in the late 1990s, when being a Serb in Europe was almost as unpopular as being a German in 1939.)
In some ways a typical bully, the Bigot defies any attempts to plum the depths of his own anger and seems to come to therapy only for the opportunity to argue.
This is a minor concern for Mira. Ensconced in her companionable marriage to Peter, her cozy middle-class home, and distanced from the messy complications of family and the decomposing and war-torn Yugoslavia, Mira seems intellectually intrigued by the situations presented to her but as emotionally protected as if she were encased in glass.
But, of course, for any story to move forward, something must change, and about midway through these nearly 400 pages, everything does.
What begins as a little "tummy trouble" for Peter turns out to be terminal lymphoma. The domestic complications of Mira's stepson, Graham, and his wife, Clare, which for all the years of her marriage Mira had successfully kept at arm's length, become entangled in her own emotional reality as Peter draws toward death. The woes of her patients begin to resonate more personally, challenging her professional objectivity.
Meanwhile, it becomes harder for Mira to stay disengaged from the horrors of her homeland while the tensions between NATO and the Serbs grow more threatening.
The choice to set the story against this conflict is a good one: The otherwise prosaic nature of these domestic tensions is suddenly writ large against universal themes.
As she hears of Serb atrocities, Mira struggles to accept that her countrymen, her own flesh and blood, can commit such acts:
"My people could not have committed them. It is all set-up and lies. But perhaps they did commit them; perhaps my people can be savage, and were. . . ."
Later Mira comes to the reckoning that "God visits us with pain. . . . Pain teaches, purifies -- cures, paradoxically. Cures us of the arrogance we are otherwise condemned to."
Stylistically, Brownrigg weaves together the dramas of her characters not through the easier choice of omniscient narration but by shifting into multiple points of view. This has the sometimes subtle, sometimes lurching effect of, to steal a line from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, "eavesdropping on the mind in solitude."
The thoughtfulness, the intelligence, of Brownrigg's narration, its wry observations and moments of sharp insight into human suffering, are its most striking features. Interestingly, this leads to what could be seen as its weakness: all brains, no heart. Absent, largely, are sensory details that bring these worlds alive in an emotional sense, or moments of rawness in any sense. The book is well tailored at every corner. Pleasing indeed, but it never breaks your heart or makes you catch your breath.
Dunn is the author of "Faith in Carlos Gomez: A Memoir of Salsa, Sex and Salvation."