For New York novelists wanting to capture the character of their city in fiction, the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Center must feel like...

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“The Writing on the Wall”
by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
Counterpoint, 297 pp., $24

For New York novelists wanting to capture the character of their city in fiction, the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Center must feel like the proverbial elephant in the room. You can’t ignore it, but what on Earth do you say about it? What individual, invented story can possibly connect meaningfully with that moment of collective trauma?

Lynne Sharon Schwartz (“Disturbances in the Field”) gives it an unusual shot in her new novel, “The Writing on the Wall,” by focusing on a life that was already traumatized long before the terrorist attack. The result is a book in which the central story is riddled with shortcomings, yet the incidental detail on how ordinary citizens experienced the attacks is invaluable.

Thirty-four-year-old librarian Renata has been through it all. Her twin sister, Claudia, drowned when still in her teens. Her father hit the bottle and died in a car crash shortly afterward. Her mother has been institutionalized for years. Claudia’s baby, whom Renata raised for 4 years, was kidnapped and never seen again. The ne’er-do-well uncle who got Claudia pregnant also vanished long ago, along with his flaky wife.

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Little wonder that Renata, in her Brooklyn Heights apartment, steers clear of meaningful intimacies — she’s been burned again and again. So when kind, sexy Jack enters her life, he’s a problem as much as a pleasure. Does she dare open up to him?

Just when the couple are about to find deeper trust in each other, the first plane goes into the towers (“a huge marigold bursting open in the sky, across the river, flinging petals into the blue”). A clarifying chaos ensues, with Renata deciding she does want something permanent with Jack — especially in those first post-attack hours, when she’s uncertain of his whereabouts.

At the same time, her old traumas threaten to come back to life, as she finds herself caring for a newly motherless infant and, days later, a mute teenage girl (whom she starts to believe is her dead twin sister’s long-lost daughter).

Even Renata recognizes that this all adds up to melodrama — but that doesn’t help the reader buy into it. Nor does it help when Schwartz adds another hard-to-swallow component to Renata’s character: language-learning genius. When the U.S. government asks Renata’s boss for assistance in translating articles from Arab newspapers, it’s up to Renata to learn the language from scratch. How long, her boss wants to know, will it take her? “Better make it a couple of weeks.”

Maybe in freak cases this is possible, but Schwartz doesn’t make it credible — even if, in describing Renata’s archival work in obscure languages, she does muse provocatively on concepts and feelings that some languages capture in a single word, while others need whole sentences.

Where the book succeeds unquestionably is in its account of the attack and its aftermath. Brooklyn Heights that week was downwind from Lower Manhattan, in direct line of smoke and paper debris from Ground Zero. The way the attack altered New Yorkers’ sense of time; the irresistibility of TV coverage, even to eyewitnesses; the repeated mantras of presidential speeches (“Make no mistake,” etc.); the suspension of normal parking regulations (no small matter in New York) — all are precisely noted.

The suddenly closer contact with neighbors is equally well observed: “A gray-haired women is pleading for Prozac, Paxil, anything, but the younger people explain. ‘It takes weeks to work. And you can’t just take anyone’s. You don’t know the dosage. What you want is Valium.’ “

It wouldn’t surprise me if, years from now, historians attempting to portray local public reaction to 9/11 look to “The Writing on the Wall” for these and other telling details. But those details aren’t enough to make the novel satisfying as a whole.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com. He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998 and has also published four novels.