Welcome to Brighton in 1988 and the University of Sussex, where kids sport Mohawks and light up to the otherworldly sounds of the Cocteau Twins, as conversation drifts from structuralism to Thatcher to the bloody Labour Students. Meet David Heller, an American studying abroad who’s left the States to escape his own family still mourning the death of a daughter ten years later. To extend his stay, David has taken a job nursing Hans Bromwell. The son of a former MP, and playboy in his day, Hans was left paralyzed by a mysterious accident. When David moves into the Bromwell house, his life becomes quickly entwined with those of Hans, his alcoholic sister Elizabeth, and her beautiful fatherless daughter, as they navigate their new role as fallen aristocracy. As David befriends the Bromwells, the details behind the family’s staggering fall from grace are exposed: How Elizabeth’s love affair with a Portuguese physician carried the young English girl right into the bloody battlefields of colonial Africa, where an entire continent bellowed for independence, and a single event left a family broken forever.
David has quite enjoyed his year studying abroad in England. More than soaking up the culture and experiencing the world, he’s fallen in love. So, what’s a smitten young man to do when it’s time to return home and leave his dream girl behind? Find a way to stay, of course. Enter Hans Bromwell, the son of a wealthy family paralyzed in a freak accident. In order to stay in England, David agrees to care for Hans and winds up getting more out of the experience than he ever dreamed possible.
No. 4 Imperial Lane wasn’t anything like I expected it to be. It began like any ordinary novel, telling of David’s adventures in Sussex after arriving from the United States for a year abroad. You get to know him a bit and follow his life as he meets and eventually falls in love with Maggie. In a last ditch effort to stay in England and continue his love affair with Maggie, David takes on a job caring for the paralyzed Hans. This is where the novel deviated from the norm and delved into the new and interesting for me.
While caring for Hans, David becomes friendly with his employer’s sister, Elizabeth. Although at first, he only listens out of politeness and to ease the boredom he’s experiencing, before long, David is as engrossed in Elizabeth’s story as the rest of us are. Listening to her tell her tale of adventure and excitement between meeting the love of her life in Portugal and how she wound up in a Portuguese colony in Africa, I not only got to experience a good story, but I also learned something I had forgotten about world history. Even more interesting is watching David move from an uninterested outsider to part of the family, going so far as to befriend Hans and become more than just a disinterested caretaker.
Beautifully written and engaging, No. 4 Imperial Lane is one of the most unique novels I’ve read this year. I loved the weaving of the past into the present and the way the author managed to bring them together into the future. With exotic locations and interesting characters, I was sucked in and held tight all the way until the very end.