Reviewed by Victoria Best
Several years ago, I read a short story collection by an author whose name was buzzing around the blogosphere as a talent to watch. The book was called The Secret Lives of People In Love and the author was Simon van Booy. The prose felt very different to the mainstream of writing by men, elegant and lyrical with a tender sensibility to it. You might almost term it a kind of contemporary romanticism. Van Booy was most interested in what the hearts of his characters were doing, and he was not afraid to describe his imagined world in terms that were almost lush, running dangerously close at times to pretention, but with enough clean clarity and space in his style to avoid that pitfall. I found his work most intriguing.
I was most curious, then, to see what he would do in his debut novel, Everything Beautiful Began After. I put off reading it for quite a while, afraid that it wouldn’t come up to my hopes and unwilling to be disappointed. But when I finally did pick it up, I was immediately swallowed whole into the story and couldn’t put it down. The relief! It was not overdone, as I’d feared, or a collection of short stories somehow mashed together. It was a beautiful novel and one of the most compelling I read for this edition.
The story concerns three young people who have lost their anchors early in life. Rebecca, a gifted French artist, was abandoned by her mother and brought up by her grandfather. She has a twin but the sisters are not close, only joined together by what feels like the failure of their parenting. Rebecca grows up quiet and shy and profoundly alone. After a couple of years as a flight attendant for Air France, she decides to ‘live in exile with her desires. She would live as she imagined them on canvas, like faint patches of starlight: hopeful, but so far away; compelling, yet dispossessed of change.’ And so she moves to Athens, taking just her painting supplies with her.
Here she meets George, a highly intelligent but emotionally buttoned-up product of American boarding schools, who has had a chronic drink problem since he was fourteen.
Drinking gave George a sense of quiet happiness. It was something to look forward to. It allowed him to focus on the moment and think wild things he never would have thought while sober. When he was drunk, the past was a smoking ruin far away – something he could shrug off.
George is desperate for love, starved of tenderness and intimacy. But he is also easily overwhelmed by his emotions. He and Rebecca become friends first, and then share a casual and not entirely successful one-night-stand, out of a kind of pitying generosity on Rebecca’s part. Afterwards, George is convinced he has finally found love and Rebecca is embarrassed by what she has done.
She’s also recently met Henry, an archaeologist and the most spirited and outgoing of the threesome. Henry is British and has his own childhood demons, but initially, at least, he appears less scarred than the others. In part this seems to be because Henry has found his place in the world, working the dig with his long-time mentor, the delightful Professor Peterson. Henry and Rebecca fall in love fast and with a strength of feeling that unsettles them both. Through a series of random events (that I won’t spoil) they end up reunited with George, and for a time the friendship that the three of them share is euphoric. The wild beauty of Greece becomes the perfect backdrop to the growing bonds that liberate them from their troubled pasts and start to heal the wounds they have unwittingly suffered. But we all know that glorious happiness, a third of the way into a novel, is doomed. When the apocalypse comes, it is heart-wrenching and absolute. Now it is light-hearted, confident Henry who must bear the brunt of fate’s savagery, and it seems at first that he won’t survive it.
However, the reader has been given a clue to the novel’s ending in its beginning. A brief prologue features a ten-year-old child, who becomes curious to know the story of how her parents met. Quite how the main narrative will curl around to meet the prologue is impossible to predict, but we do have this thin plotline of hope to hang onto that the broken lives of our protagonists will eventually mend.
This is a vivid and engrossing novel, one unashamedly drunk on love, fate and tragic beauty. It manages to be sentimental without ever being cloying, cliched or predictable, thanks to the crisp, meticulous writing and the confident vision of the author. Simon van Booy is certainly not afraid to let his characters suffer, but the strength of his belief in friendship and the unvanquished human spirit make this ultimately an uplifting experience. He’s been compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and there’s a touch of him in that, but really, the pleasure of his books is that his voice isn’t really like anyone else writing at the moment. If you like intelligent and well-written love stories, then try him for yourself.
Simon van Booy, Everything Beautiful Began After (Oneworld, April 2014) 978-1780743783, 368 pages, paperback.