When We Were Alive by C.J. Fisher

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Reviewed by Simon

Anybody who keeps an eye on book news, or the stands in WH Smith at Christmastime, will probably have observed the sensation of the YouTube Book. The 20-something year old with a camera and a cheery smile has been unleashed on an unsuspecting audience of people with preteen children, and Zoella is just the most famous of a gathering mass. Well, it’s true that I first came across C.J. Fisher in her persona as Ophelia Dagger on YouTube, but she would be the first to disavow the title of Vlogger Novelist. It may be how I discovered her as a novelist, but they are very different entities.

While ‘Ophelia Dagger’ is irreverent and very funny, When We Were Alive shows an author who looks at serious topics full in the face – with some humour, yes, but the humour supports the tragedy rather than the other way around. The opening words – ‘Mum, I don’t have cancer’ – set the tone for the sort of novel we are reading.

The narrative is split into three separate voices, telling seemingly independent stories – though it won’t only be fans of Michael Cunningham’s masterpiece in this wheelhouse, The Hours, who will suspect that more may link them than sharing the same covers. Myles writes awkward letters to his mother in the early 2010s. Bobby is a shy would-be magician and school outcast in the 1930s. William, who comes along a bit later, is fighting his own lonely demons in the 1960s

Fisher delves deep into each of these voices. While it is only Myles who gives us a first person narrative, we get to know the darkness and difficulties of all of them. Of all of them, it was Myles I found the most intriguing and the most originally written. He hasn’t the gift of connecting with people easily, and he describes events plainly and out of kilter; his emotions are somewhat distant even from himself. Here’s a sample from the opening of one of his letters:

I got the job in the library basement. I started last week. It’s just me and this other guy, Charlie, working down there. I think Charlie is really old as his skin is weather-beaten pock-marked leather and he wears a perpetually peppery five o’clock shadow, but then maybe it’s because of those things that he looks really old, not the other way around. Maybe Charlie used to work as a fisherman and the salt winds aged him prematurely. I haven’t asked Charlie his age because we’d still be there under the library, amongst the ruined books every day, however old he was. Although yesterday he compared the faded pages in the dirty basement copy of A Handful of Dust to the static over a wireless, so maybe he wasn’t a fisherman.

A teenager might not be the biggest stretch for Fisher, but she also writes convincingly through the eyes – albeit in the third person – of WW1 soldiers, warring partners, regretful parents, and those at their lowest ebb. It is done almost invariably with a sensitive aptness, even when dealing with extraordinary lows; nothing feels gratuitous.

There are a few signs that this is a first novel. There are perhaps too many characters and too much going on; I don’t think Fisher would have suffered from turning this into three different novels, especially since the narratives are deliberately kept separate for so much of When We Were Alive. But editing out ideas is classic first-novelist territory, and it is doubtless something that will happen in her second.

A greater issue, for me, was how modern every character sounded. The writing is certainly nuanced and perceptive, but always felt as though it were describing people who had lived during Fisher’s lifetime. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the dialogue. Nobody in 1941 would have said “Nah, I think I’m over it”, for instance, and those sort of modern speech tics recur throughout the novel.

But that is a quibble in an otherwise well written, engaging, and thoughtful novel. It may be damning with faint praise, but I suspect this is the best book that a YouTuber has produced – and speaks of an extremely promising writing career.

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Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors and spends far too much time watching YouTube videos as it is.

C.J. Fisher, When We Were Alive (Legend Press, 2016). 978-1785079900, 234pp., paperback.

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