Reviewed by Harriet
World is crazier and more of it than we think / Incorrigibly plural.
The epigraph to this novel is by Louis MacNeice, from his poem Snow, and beautifully encapsulates the underlying themes of this stunning novel, which gave me hours and hours of huge pleasure. It’s O’Farrell’s seventh novel, and I think I’ve read all the others, with varying degrees of enjoyment, but I believe it’s her best yet.
This is the story of a marriage – ‘the forces that bring it together and the forces that drive it apart’ as O’Farrell has said in an interview. The two people whose marriage forms the focus of the narrative are obviously central, but it’s a story told through multiple viewpoints from a wide range of times and places. It’s a sort of glorious jigsaw by means of which the reader gradually comes to understand what brought the two main protagonists together, what divided them, and what will, we hope, bring them back together.
The opening chapter brilliantly sets the scene for what is to follow. It’s narrated by one of the central characters, Daniel Sullivan. Born in Brooklyn, Daniel is working as a linguistics professor in Belfast and living in Donegal with his wife, beautiful Claudette Wells, and their two children Marithe (pronounced Marritay) and baby Calvin. It’s a typical family morning, with Daniel trying to get everyone in the car for the journey to the station, but untypically the morning starts with Claudette letting off a shotgun in the general direction of someone who is lurking in a nearby field. Eventually everyone is in the car and it transpires that after work Daniel is unwillingly flying to New York for his father’s 90th birthday party – unwillingly because he and his father strongly dislike each other. Then, fiddling with the radio, Daniel hears a voice which awakens a whole series of forgotten memories:
Without warning, my mind is engaged with a series of flash-cards: a cobbled pavement indistinct with fog, a bicycle chained to a railing, trees dense with the scent of pine, a giving pelt of fallen needles underfoot, a telephone receiver pressed to the soft cartilage of an ear.
I know that woman, I want to exclaim, I knew her. I almost turn and say this to the kids in the back: I knew that person, once.
I am remembering the black cape thing she used to wear and her penchant for unwalkable shoes, weird, articulated jewellery, outdoor sex, when the voice fades out and the presenter comes on air to tell us that was Nicola Janks, speaking in the mid-1980s.
From this seemingly random moment, the whole of the rest of the plot gradually unfurls. Over the course of the book, by means of the many disparate narrators, a picture of events slowly builds. We learn of Daniel’s first meeting with Claudette and her small son Ari, and of her reasons for being a recluse – she’s on the run from a life and a career as a film star she could no longer bear to be living. We see how happy they are together, but then comes that random moment with the radio and everything changes. Daniel’s memories of Nicola, and his guilt and anxiety over the end of their relationship, fuel an obsession with finding the truth of what happened, an obsession that threatens everything he and Claudette have built up together.
Each chapter in the novel is told from a different point of view, so we hear not only from, or about, Daniel and Claudette but also their various offspring – he has two children from his first marriage – from Claudette’s brother and his wife, desperately wanting to conceive and eventually to adopt – her ex-partner, Ari’s father – Daniel’s mother, and others – sometimes in the first person, sometimes the third – there’s even a chapter devoted to the sale catalogue of Claudette’s possessions after her disappearance. Styles and tenses change according to who is telling the story, and the whole thing gradually melds together to form a rich and satisfying picture of two flawed human beings struggling to find ways to connect emotionally.
This is a novel of great humanity, covering a wide range of human experience. It will definitely be on my list of best novels of 2016. Do read it!
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Maggie O’Farrell, This Must Be the Place (Tinder Press, 2016). 978-0755358809, 496pp., hardback.
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