Reviewed by Harriet
This funny, moving, absorbing, thought-provoking novel is about marriage, lust, friendship, ageing, memory, philosophy, and quantum mechanics.
The film had been about a serial killer, to Gerald’s surprise. He must have read the wrong review. It was a film of shadows and oblique angles; long periods of quiet, irruptions of violence. More Abby’s thing than his. He preferred his terror to be spectral or otherworldly, the sort that suggested more to life than you’d thought. Not about some dreary, obsessive man who did the same horrible thing over and over, like a kind of job.
This opening paragraph, particularly the phrase ‘suggested more to life than you’d thought’, seems to sum up Gerald’s general view of the world. He’s a retired history professor, living in Bath with his wife Abby. You’d think with age would come wisdom, but life continues to be a puzzle to him, one he’s continually trying to solve, without, it must said, all that much success. He’s devoted to his wife Abby, despite (or maybe because) she’s about as different from him as she could possibly be. He’s very fond of his best friend Terence, a retired professor of quantum physics, though he doesn’t really understand what he’s talking about a lot of the time (not helped by the fact that Terence rarely finishes his sentences). In fact Gerald doesn’t even fully understand the workings of his own mind.
At the very beginning of the novel, on the way home from the cinema, Gerald encounters an aggressive, foul-mouthed young homeless woman named Laura who says she’s planning to jump into the river and would like Gerald to watch her do it. He tells her she’s chosen the wrong location as the river’s not deep enough, and ends up explaining what the best place would be. Then he goes home, only to realise that he may have unwittingly precipitated her suicide. So he goes out again, makes his way to the spot he’d described, and hangs around waiting to see if she turns up, which she doesn’t. He’s accosted by a policeman and makes a hash of trying to explain what he was doing. Eventually he gets home and creeps upstairs in the dark house and into bed. He starts to relax, and then it dawns on him that something is wrong. ‘He stretched a hand out towards Abby’s side. No Abby’. Already worried by his increasing forgetfulness, he racks his brains to try to work out where she might be. He checks the spare room in case they’d had a row – no Abby. He rings her mobile – no reply. He walks from room to room, ‘shouting mutedly’. Eventually he finds a note in the kitchen: ‘Gone to hospital’. So off he rushes again, only to find her sitting calmly in A&E with a magazine, waiting for news of her potter friend Steve, whose hand has been run over by a car.
‘Was it his pottery hand?’
‘Both hands are your pottery hand, Gerald’.
Life doesn’t get any simpler. Abby’s attractive sister Judith turns up for the weekend, and Gerald is overcome by the memory of an afternoon many years ago when he and Judith had sex in the spare bedroom. Judith, who is now widowed, appears not to remember this at all. So Gerald is once again reminded of the theory he developed many years ago, influenced by Terence and his quantum physics – a theory that there are many alternative universes in which the same life event can have a variety of different outcomes. In one of them he might have committed adultery with Judith, whereas in another he didn’t. He had been so enamoured of this theory that he had persuaded the history department of his university to allow him to base a whole module on what he called ‘alternative history’, and now, in retirement, he’s trying unsuccessfully to write s book about it.
Then there’s the matter of Laura. When the homeless girl told Gerald her name, it had rung a faint bell, not one Gerald had been interested in following up. Later he concludes that ‘it could be that your narrative, your history, only accepted certain authorised events, that a ghostly editor was at work shaping your existence for general consumption so that when you looked back on the past all you saw was a truncated, abbreviated version’. This becomes of particular relevance when Terence brings up ‘the Laura of years back’.
‘What Laura would that be?’
‘Oh for heavens sake, Gerald. She almost cost you your marriage. That Laura. Your student’.
Gerald felt his cheeks go red. Had Terence confused him with someone else?
But no. At first he can only ‘nearly remember remembering her’, but soon the memories, deeply embarrassing and shameful, come flooding back in vivid Technicolor. And worst of all, it seems that Abby, from whom the whole thing had been supposedly kept secret, had known every detail of it all along. ‘Plus another thing’, Abby said, ‘what about you going to bed with my little sister?’
Gerald finds all this extremely unjust. Recently he’d come to realise that there were parts of Abby’s life he’d never known about – her first boyfriend, a Greek engineering student, and the various waiters she claims to have slept with on holiday, among other things – and now it appears that she seems to have known more about his life than he knew himself. ‘All these years she’s been keeping a secret from me, he thought bitterly. My secret’.
I read this book in a state of almost continuous delight. I bookmarked so many pages that if I’d quoted them all this review would have been almost a book in itself. Having looked up Richard Francis, of whom I’d never heard, I discovered that he has written a great many books, both fiction and non-fiction, including ten novels. They all sound totally fascinating and I hope to get my hands on some of them soon. Meanwhile I’m just happy to have read this one and will be recommending it to all and sundry.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Richard Francis, Laura Laura (Europa, 2020). 978-1787702455, 240pp., hardback.
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