Reviewed by Annabel
You may know Cathy Rentzenbrink through her heart-breaking memoir published a few years ago. In The Last Act of Love, she tells the story of her family and the tragedy that befell them when her brother Matty was knocked down by a car on his way home, aged 16, resulting in him being in a persistent vegetative state for eight years before they made the decision to turn off his life support. Last year, she had a big hit with her book Dear Reader, a memoir of her reading life and manifesto for it and how it shaped her career as a bookseller and writer. (It’s out next month in paperback.) Both books are moving and wise, but also very witty. This month Rentzenbrink has published her first novel, and I couldn’t wait to read it.
Juliet and Liam have just moved house with their son Charlie. Their new house is in Magnolia Road in West London, a desirable cul-de-sac under the Heathrow flight path with the M4 not far away and the railway at the bottom of the garden. It is—was—her mother’s house, inherited and now theirs. Charlie is perfectly at home there already, but then he had often stayed over with his grandmother. Now they have a house, Charlie not only has his own bedroom, but Liam, a writer, can have a room of his own too.
Juliet hopes that having a room of his own will help him to be happy and productive. Her mother always referred to it as the study but Liam thinks that sounds twattish, so they have rebranded it as the attic.
It’s fair to say that both the men in Juliet’s life settle into their new surroundings with ease, but still very much grieving for her mum, Juliet is finding it difficult. She’s surrounded by her Mum’s things, she has all the admin surrounding her Mum’s death still to do to apply for probate, she doesn’t have her Mum to help her anymore. Then Liam suggests they ‘christen’ their new bedroom…
New routines beckon, Juliet must return to work; Liam will start work on his difficult second novel; Charlie, now five, will start at his new school. They start to get to know some of their neighbours. It’s Liam who’ll take and collect Charlie from school most days though, he’ll be the one to experience the gossip at the school gates and when Juliet suggests that might make good material for his book, Liam’s brain goes into overdrive.
He is soon adopted by the school gate mums, going for coffee with them, and as in the wonderful TV comedy Motherland, there are recognisable character types in there, wittily portrayed. Rentzenbrink steers clear of satire though; her characters are fully dimensional, with their own complex family dramas, parenting dilemmas and marriage problems. At this stage of the novel, I wondered which way things were going to turn.
I couldn’t help but feel for Juliet all the way through the novel. Still grieving, she has to commute and work long hours, and still come home to housework:
They could afford a cleaner but Liam doesn’t approve of taking advantage of people in lower socio-economic groups. Not that he ever does much of it himself.
Liam does cook sometimes, but he is theoretically at work too during the day; of course initially he’s in the research mode and can play the stay-at-home-dad. I liked the way Rentzenbrink slightly subverts the norms here. However, this naturally results in Liam developing some rather close friendships with the other mums, and Juliet naturally feels pangs of jealousy. Without giving away too much, an event will happen at a party, which brings everything to the boil and will also lead to resolution.
I’m not sure that I ever warmed to Liam as I did to Juliet and the other characters. The reader’s view of him is seen through Juliet’s eyes and although she’s critical of his housekeeping efforts, it’s clear that she wants to support him in his chosen career and is still in love with him. But is he still in love with her? That is the big question.
Perhaps I would have liked a little more bite from this novel, but Rentzenbrink’s portrait of middle-class suburbia in Everyone Is Still Alive is still a super read, warm-hearted and ultimately full of the wisdom I’d hoped for.
Annabel is co-founder of Shiny also blogs at Annabookbel.
Cathy Rentzenbrink, Everyone Is Still Alive (Phoenix, 2021). 978-1474621120, 291pp., hardback.
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