In the not-too-distant future, national identity cards are mandatory, and America has become obsessed with intelligence-gathering. The government's scrutiny is omnipresent, civilians freely indulge their curiosity on the Internet, journalists pursue their investigations with relentless determination, and children both snoop on their parents and manipulate new technologies.
In Seattle, the unfulfilled actor Tad Zachary now performs mostly in the Department of Homeland Security's fictional disaster scenarios, while his friend and neighbor Lucy Bengstrom struggles to support her eleven-year-old daughter, Alida, on a freelance journalist's meager income-with their landlord providing additional threats. Then Lucy is assigned to write a profile of August Vanags, a retired professor turned best-selling author with his memoir of a childhood ravaged by World War II, but the validity of his account grows questionable, even as Lucy and Alida are charmed by both Vanags and his lonesome wife.
Everyone here is under surveillance or conducting it, and at risk of confusing what might be true for what actually is-a distinction not easily honored in a time of personal stress and widespread panic, when terrorist attack and literary fraud lurk around every corner. With precision and compassion, Jonathan Raban captures not only a peculiar period in our ongoing history but also a rich variety of lives caught up in fault lines that reach throughout society.