Jennifer Reese
December 15, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

We gave it an A-

”He nearly called you again last night. Can you imagine that, after all this time? He can.” With these faintly sinister but seductive opening lines, Australian writer Elliot Perlman launches his terrific new novel, Seven Types of Ambiguity, a cerebral dazzler of a psychodrama about obsessive love. The speaker is a psychiatrist, Alex Klima, and he’s addressing a mysterious young woman named Anna. One of his patients, Simon Heywood, has been fixated on Anna since he dated her a decade ago; Simon has recently been arrested for kidnapping Anna’s little son as part of an unhinged — or was it diabolically shrewd? — attempt to reenter her life. Additional complications: Simon’s current girlfriend, a high-class prostitute, counts Anna’s stockbroker husband as a regular client.

Perlman has divided his kaleidoscopic 623-page opus into seven sections, each with a new narrator who simultaneously moves the juicy story forward and radically alters everything we’ve understood so far. He lets various players, like Anna’s driven, adulterous spouse and the slippery Dr. Klima, share the contents of their own tortured souls, and then he shows them from a series of fresh perspectives, some predictably unflattering, others generous and revelatory. Perlman doesn’t fix his characters: Instead, he provides a shifting body of rich, ambiguous evidence that forces us to continually assess and reassess, much as we do in life.

The novel brilliantly captures the complex feel of modern life, tumbling together high culture, inane barroom chitchat, profound moral questions, and trivial daily musings. Perlman pulls off everything from poignant descriptions of a bourgeois household’s cupboard stuffed with never-used ”good” china to erudite rants about the New Economy, from a spot-on portrait of a toxic marriage to a crystalline depiction of new love. Until the final disappointing narrator takes the stage to tie up the plot’s loose ends, Ambiguity also succeeds as a suspenseful page-turner. This exhilarating novel contains multitudes.

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