A few weeks ago when browsing in a bookstore, my eye was caught by a novel about a woman whose life is briefly thrown into a different gear when a long-lost lover from the past resurfaces. And I couldn’t help but pick it up because it made me think of something that had recently happened to me. Thanks to that infernal time sink, facebook, I’d come across a boy I’d been involved with back at school and, pretty sure he wouldn’t remember who I was, I’d sent a brief hello. It turned out he did remember me and we exchanged news enthusiastically for a while and then, just like that, he dropped out of sight again. So on one level it was an uncanny replay of the relationship we’d had as teenagers, and maybe in another twenty years I’ll find out what it was I said wrong this time. But my goodness, it took me back to being 18 again and to the worrying realization that I haven’t changed much. Except of course for the ways I’ve changed completely: the self I remember was so very unformed, a strange mix of fearlessness and uncertainty, and deep-down thrilled at the thought that I stood on the brink of my life, longing for it all to begin. Now my contours seem fixed – too fixed at times – and I am both more certain and more fearful. And when I read a while back that after 40 your life is a commentary on the living that preceded it, that phrase stuck in my mind and I haven’t quite been able to shake free of it, and the suspicion that maybe everything that was going to happen to me has happened already. So perhaps it’s no wonder that the memory of 18 is a terrible lure, as the past is a powerful place, for its open vistas of possibility if nothing else.
Anyhow, enough about me. William Nicholson’s The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life turned out to be a fantastic read and, surprisingly, one of those novels that are much better than their blurb. Yes, the story does concern in part Laura, and the return to her life of first love, Nick, but it is in fact a narrative that weaves together the fates and preoccupations of a large cast of characters, all of whom are connected to one another through geography or work or family ties or chance. There’s Henry, Laura’s husband, who is thoroughly miserable in his job writing scripts for a television star, a history academic, who swans in and takes all the glory. There are Carrie and Jack, their children, fighting the dirty battles of the playground, there’s their teacher, Alan, who longs to be a playwright, and his next-door neighbour, Marion, a fantasist busy convincing herself Alan is in love with her. There’s single mother, Liz, who is trying to juggle work and motherhood with the dubious help of her mother, Aster, who has never come to terms with her own losses. There’s a delightful cameo of the local vicar, a gentle, compassionate man who offers genuine help to his troubled parishioners but whose lack of formal Christian belief will get him into difficulty. And there are many others, whose stories add to the rich texture of the narrative and whose plotlines will interact with one another over the course of six days in which everything changes, and yet everything stays the same.
Nicholson’s basic premise is that if you lift the lid off any human being, you will find a secret inner life of formidable emotional intensity. His narrative moves from one perspective to another with ease and vivid clarity as he evokes the anguish, longing and vulnerability of each of his characters, hidden just below the surface and yet overwhelming in the lived moment. I was having a discussion on the phone the other day with the adorable Fugitive Pieces, who said she’d had a revelation about the books that pleased her. They all turned out to have been written by authors who actually liked their characters, and this novel was a perfect case in point. Nicholson treats his varied cast with unwavering compassion, gently steering them from the troubled place where the book begins, towards happier endings. This was a poignant, moving, uplifting sort of book, and at the same time, a very novel-ish sort of novel, if you know what I mean. It seemed at first glance an odd story for a man to write. When I describe it, I’m afraid it might sound like something Miss Read might pen, but don’t be fooled, for the book has its own intense inner life, and is particularly graphic over issues of sexuality. But I loved it, and it is another contender for the best books of 2010.
While I’m on the topic of exes (sort of) I might as well review another book I read while I wasn’t blogging, The Bed I Made by Lucie Whitehouse. This is a completely different kind of book and yet once again it is based on a recognizable sort of model. This is a Woman As Victim Who Tries To Fight Back Thriller. The story concerns Kate, a freelance translator with a difficult family history who does not always form relationships easily. However, one reckless evening, she met and fell into a startlingly intense liaison with satanically handsome and enigmatic Richard who eventually dropped the enigma and turned out to be just plain satanic. After eighteen thrilling but bruising months, Richard has gone too far, and Kate is determined to finish the relationship. Richard, alas, has other plans for her, and aware of how dangerous he is when thwarted, Kate attempts to drop below the radar by moving away from London and to the Isle of Wight for six months. After a nervous start, she begins to settle into her new life and to grow fond of it, to connect with a natural environment that awakens parts of her self she had lost in the artificial bustle of London life. She also becomes slightly obsessed with the story of a local woman who went missing from her boat when Kate first arrived and is presumed dead. But of course, Kate cannot be allowed to heal and grow in peace, because the peril she feared is approaching ever nearer as Richard starts to track her down.
A couple of things I wasn’t sure about in this book; the first was when I began it, I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was the sort of story in which a difficult relationship, a dangerous one, in fact, can only be neutralised by another, good relationship. What have I got against this equation, I wonder? It’s just that it seems undermining to me, when the story is fundamentally about a woman refusing victimhood, that she cannot do this on her own, that she has to be part of a pair to reclaim her sense of self. I sense powerful storytelling tropes pulling the strings here, because a woman healing the past is rarely allowed to do so through her work alone, for instance, or her community or her friendships. It just doesn’t make for a ‘good’ story. I won’t tell you how this conundrum is resolved; you’ll have to read the book to find out. My other uncertainty is a missed opportunity concerning location. There is a lot of description in this book of the Isle of Wight, and I mean, enough to give me the urge to skip some of it. And I realized that I wasn’t engaged with it because the author didn’t do enough with the landscape. Really good thrillers make use of every element of the narration to create atmosphere. Here, the Isle of Wight was very accurately and sometimes beautifully evoked, but it was a backdrop on which the action was pasted. The novels that have impressed me lately, like Lee Child and his use of urban space for Reacher, show how the world colludes in the chase that is the heart of the thriller – does the world expose or hide the protagonists, what resources does it provide, does it contrast natural beauty with human evil or emphasise the dark side of humanity?
But where this book really works is in the psychological and emotional portrait it creates of abusive relationships. The back story of Richard and Kate’s relationship unspools across the narrative and was the best part (for me, at least). It was completely convincing and drawn with a lot of insight and accuracy. Although I had a few reservations about the book it was a generally good read and worth it for the psychological astuteness. Expect a sort of quality beach read. I’d say more but reviewing two books is too much really, and always makes for a huge post. Except to say that the return of the past, the contrast between our insides and our outsides, the exquisite vulnerability of love relationships, these are all formidable topics for narrative, and make for the kind of stories I really enjoy reading.