Nobody can write about being human like Maggie O’Farrell. Nobody else I’ve read comes close to capturing the emotional essence of the tiny moments that coalesce to form our lives – the almost-brush of two hands, the sound of a long forgotten voice, the flash of memory from a photograph. Nobody can put into words as she can the deepest and most unfathomable states of being such as grief and love. When it comes to unravelling lives and knitting them together again into a gut-wrenching tapestry of humanity, she is in a class of her own.
If someone was to ask me what this book was about, hoping for a neat plot summary, then there wouldn’t be an easy way to tell them. The linear story strand is really a thread from which to spin a multitude of narratives and ideas, each one digging deeper into the lives of the characters; it’s almost not so much about what happens as it is how and why. The principal players are Daniel and Claudette, an apparently content married couple who live with their young children in a remote part of rural Ireland. We join them just before something happens that tips their relationship into crisis and sets in motion a struggle between the forces that pull two people apart and those that keep them together. The trigger for everything that unfolds is a seemingly insignificant event: a voice on the radio. As soon as Daniel hears it he is jolted into remembering someone from his past who has lain dead and buried, literally and figuratively, for many years. At this stage we know nothing about this mysterious woman, but she’s significant enough to send him on a quest that spans hundreds of miles – a journey he hopes will provide and answer to the question that’s been smouldering at the back of his mind for two decades or more. It soon begins to look, however, as if by seeking out his past Daniel may be in danger of jeopardising his present happiness with Claudette; it transpires that she too has a history that has left her nursing an emotional fragility not apparent from her confident, no nonsense exterior. Just as important as these current events, though, is the story of the lives that husband and wife have led up to this point, about which we find out through chapters told in flashback and narrated by different characters. With this emphasis on backstory the author shows us how fundamental our pasts can be in shaping our present self, and how we can only truly understand her characters by seeing the loves, tragedies, transgressions and disappointments they’ve experienced and still carry with them.
Often when a novel is written using numerous voices and jumps between time periods I find it frustrating to read. There is the potential confusion of where you are in the story’s timeline and also the pitfall of not engaging with some of the narrators as much as you do with others. It takes an immensely talented writer I think to make all the voices resonate as authentically as each other, and the fact that Maggie O’Farrell has that ability is one of the things that makes the book work so well. There are no filler characters or anyone whose point of view has been shoehorned in purely to provide some exposition: every single one makes a crucial contribution to the picture being painted of the two lead characters. It’s almost as if by using such a complex, multi-person narrative the author is demonstrating that in a way each of us are as many different people as there are others to perceive us. There’s even a chapter very near the end of the book told from the point of view of a completely new character who we’ve never met before and who has no bearing at all on the rest of the story. At first I found that slightly bewildering but after some thought I realised it revealed another truth, namely that even people with whom we connect only fleetingly can have an insight into an aspect of our personality or situation that we ourselves haven’t seen. Yes, it’s a novel about something that’s happening to people every day the world over – the forging and then the disintegration of a relationship – but the author is determined to go as deep as possible into the nuances of this commonplace yet absolutely fundamental element of human existence.
There are some perfectly captured moments here that will move you to tears; Daniel shouting for help in the hospital as he clings to his suffering child is the one that has stayed with me the most. And you won’t be able to hear the words, “I’ve changed my mind” again for a while without your heart breaking ever so slightly. Yet while nothing in the novel is smooth sailing – after all, when is life ever like that? – it’s still ultimately an optimistic book at heart. If we love someone enough we will never stop fighting for them is the message here, and I can’t think of a more joyful message than that.