Sadie Jones knows the human heart—and she reaches deep into it—in her extraordinary, affecting new novel. “Fallout” is very much about just that: the debris that descends in the wake of explosion. It is also very much about love, duplicity, art and “the nonsense fairy tale of salvation.”

Four twentysomethings in 1970s’ London consider, but never really confront, the future. Paul Driscoll fancies himself a theatrical producer. Leigh Radley, his best girl, is more comfortable as a stage manager, finding comfort in being a provider both professionally and personally. On a trip to the provinces one rainy night, the two ask for directions from Luke Kanowski, a dynamic young man who feels trapped by family and work.

A casual invitation to visit London results in Luke’s moving in with Paul. Luke turns out to be the perfect fit: He dabbles at writing, specifically playwriting. The three eventually set up a radical theater company, almost as a buffer against their pasts.

Luke is the son of a taciturn Polish POW who remained in England after the war and took an unstable French woman to wife. Over the years, Luke has parented his parents, judging his father and defending his mother. Paul’s family is just the opposite: simply middle-class, just middle-class enough for Paul to rebel against. Leigh is incredibly bright and sensitive, knows theater well, avoids confrontation of any kind with her strong-willed mother and proves especially adept at keeping the two men afloat – until Luke shows Paul his first play. She is also quietly, patiently attracted to Luke.

Enter Nina Jacob. Nina has issues, from her domineering mother/former actress to her rich, manipulative and perverse young producer husband. Luke sees her first play and becomes obsessed with the idea of Nina. The two engage in a clandestine affair, ruled more by their reckless hearts than by their watchful heads. Luke intends to “save” Nina just as he intended to “save” his mother in his youth when he broke her out of a mental hospital. For Luke, love is salvation. But for Nina, “love was longing.”

Relationships remain brittle as they come to a head over a new play of Luke’s for a new company of Paul’s.

Sadie Jones has written an immensely absorbing, emotionally acute novel. She paints an engrossing portrait of the workings of theater in general and radical 1970s theater in particular. But she has achieved something much more intriguing. “Fallout” is Jones’ compelling portrait of four lives among the emotional detritus of art and love, territory each of us has surely visited at one time or another.

Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.