Photo by Jerome Tisne

One year after her husband dies at the hands of Muslim extremists, a woman decides to take a Muslim lover, a man she’s barely met, and meets him at a rundown, empty seaside motel. If such a synopsis of After, Claire Tristram’s first novel, sounds like a recipe for melodrama, polemic or self-important literary hoo-hah, don’t be deterred, for such reductive description doesn’t — can’t — take into account the force and precision of Tristram’s writing, which is so careful and pressurized that sentence by sentence, word by word, she locates a true, nuanced path through this potentially disastrous story.

Written in points of view alternating between the unnamed woman and her chosen lover, After is terse and focused in a world of confused emotions. The woman has no firm grasp as to why she has felt compelled to act on a perverse threat blurted out in a grief-counseling session, but “. . . the idea of taking a Muslim lover continued to rub at her mind . . . The thought became a habit, a harmless fantasy, yet one so deeply hidden, even from herself, that it would startle her anew when she caught herself looking at a dark-skinned man.” The man she chooses is a married Iranian who immigrated to America after the shah’s fall. He has an old-world masculine entitlement to have affairs; the woman’s interest compels and sustains him, though her “fervent melancholy” and obvious grief trouble him. Both proceed with the tryst, drawn on by the mystery of their own needs.

This is a world, Tristram reminds us, where more and more we can be killed not for who we are, but for what nationality or religion we happen to be. Meanwhile, these two people discover, in the most intimate circumstances, the power and violence and tenderness seething in their own psyches — psyches that, not coincidentally, mirror those of a country that has lost thousands at the hands of Muslim extremists. After is undeniably a 9/11 novel — one of many to come — but it is written on a tiny canvas, with impeccable, photographic detail and an unstinting allegiance to emotional and erotic truth.

AFTER | By CLAIRE TRISTRAM | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | 194 pages | $20 hardcover

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