Maine writer Debra Spark’s new novel, “Unknown Caller,” shatters the conventions of storytelling like a Cubist painting fractures realism. The result is a story that closely approximates real life – messy and confusing, with important pieces misplaced and time distorted by the force of circumstances and events. The reader may find the storyline hard to get a handle on at first. It’s best, as in life, to simply go with it.

The novel starts with a phone call in the middle of the night. Joel Pearlman and his young wife, Daniella, are awakened at 2 a.m. The call is from Liesel, the woman Joel was married to for five months 19 years ago, a woman who broke his heart by abandoning him, who has a habit of calling in the middle of the night from places like Geneva, Paris and London. This call is greatly more significant than those before, for Liesel announces that she is finally sending their daughter, Idzia, to spend the summer with him. Joel has never seen Idzia, despite desperately wanting to, because Liesel fled the marriage pregnant, went to Europe and has never allowed it.

Joel drives down from Maine to Boston to pick up his daughter on the appointed day. Only she never shows, with no explanation why. Thereafter, the late night phone calls stop all together.

The novel shifts in the second chapter to the story of Liesel and Idzia in London. Liesel has cancer and is readmitted in an emergency to the hospital. When Idzia comes to visit, her mother tells her that she has spoken with her father and arranged for her to go visit him in America. Idzia is upset and adamantly opposed to going. Later, while Idzia is riding on the Metro, there is a blast. Fifty-six people die, but Idzia survives.

The narrative is divided into two parts. The first and longer section is an extended, regressive series of backstories, with each successive chapter a backstory to the chapter that precedes it. The story moves backwards in time across the globe, from Maine to London, Morocco, Paris and Italy. We meet an array of characters who materialize in Liesel’s life when she most needs a friend, and, as is often the case, someone to take her and Idzia in when they don’t have anywhere else to go. The characters are revelations of the author’s rich imagination. There’s Bernie Russell, a London nurse and tenderhearted friend, and Raymond, a goodhearted soul who tells Liesel he’s in “funerary services,” but Liesel comes to understand that he is into far more than counseling the bereaved. There’s Justine and Gladys, Liesel’s older sister and mother, one a drama queen and the other a manipulative enabler; and a young London couple who accidentally hire her as a nanny, rescuing her from the mess of her life with Michael, a hapless artist boyfriend. The backwards slide ultimately leads to how Joel and Liesel meet and marry, and to the circumstances precipitating pregnant Liesel’s departure.

Liesel is flighty, full of dreams, beyond impulsive, and ever without a plan. She lacks the financial resources to carry out a plan, other than an instinct to capitalize on whatever comes along, typically in the nick of time. She is passionate, adventurous and, as readers come to appreciate, generous and principled on her own terms.

Part Two of the book is relatively brief. Only three chapters long, it moves the reader forward in time. It is the story of Idzia living the bohemian life in the film world in Copenhagen. Her best friend, Katie, is writing and producing a film trailer based on Idzia’s life. Here, all the misplaced and left-out pieces from the first section of the book fall into their proper place.

In one scene, Katie tells Idzia that her instructors love the trailer, but “they don’t like the way the film jumps around in time.”

“It does?” Idzia remarks. Katie hasn’t told her what is in the script. “They want the whole thing to be chronological.”

Liesel’s friend Bertie has told Idzia that Joel and Daniella and their teenage son, Benjamin, are coming to Copenhagen to meet her. Idzia remains opposed to the idea, but agrees when Bertie encourages her to take her “family” as backup to meet them. She selects Bertie, Katie and Nikolaj, her roommate.

The ending is deeply honest and affecting.

Strange as the story’s telling is, it leaves the reader with the sense that this is very much how life is, maddeningly perplexing at times despite our best efforts to understand it, yet also marvelous and heartbreaking. It’s about how we tell ourselves interpretive stories, which are always missing, misplacing and misrepresenting important pieces of the tale, out of a desire to fortify or validate what we’ve come to believe is true. At heart, it is also a story about what truly constitutes family.

“Unknown Caller” is an uncommon novel by an uncommon talent, a puzzle and a delight.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer and ghostwriter whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was named as a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, created by best-selling novelist Barbara Kingsolver. Smith can be reached via his website:

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