Reviewed by Katherine Matthews
Sunset Park by Paul Auster is a stunning and subtle portrayal of several characters who have taken up illegal residence in a squat in New York. The squat is the connecting entity between the characters, though each character’s motivations for being there is different, and the characters learn about each other at the same time that we do as the audience, their stories unfolding as they find themselves more at home in the hovel in Sunset Park.
The story itself is possibly unremarkable — four characters are brought together by financial circumstances to live in a squat. What makes the novel shine is his magnificent portraiture (he is indeed painting portraits) of the characters. The novel is divided into chapters named after the characters, giving each one dedicated time as the focus for narration. At the beginning of the work, I was a bit resentful of Auster’s outright neglect of story structure to instead focus entirely on back-story and character development. He uses and abuses page after page providing character history. Yet, as I continued reading, he accomplished what is indeed the mission of any character development: I cared what happened to them. It’s this portraiture itself which moves the story forward, each person’s perspective and back-story layering depth and emotion to the relatively minor events of the primary storyline.
I’m not completely satisfied with the point in the story that the book ended; it seemed cut short without appropriate closure, leaving me a little unfulfilled as I closed the book cover. Overall, I was incredibly engaged with the characters and the world that he placed them in, so it’s perhaps apropos that his character vignettes resound over the story. I was impressed with Auster’s gentle touch in writing, relying on the poetic use of prose to engage imagination, much more so than dialogue or action.