Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Books – The Versions of Us, by Laura Barnett

Laura Barnett’s debut novel, The Versions of Us, was published two months ago, and is an interesting, touching, beautiful book. It revolves around three different alternate stories, three different possible lives of its protagonists. So in Cambridge in 1958, a young student named Eva Edelstein gets a puncture in her bike, and meets Jim Taylor when he stops to offer her help. Or alternatively, in Cambridge in 1958, a young student named Eva Edelstein swerves to avoid a dog while on her bike, and cycles past by a young man who looks vaguely familiar. Or alternatively, in Cambridge in 1958, a young student named Eva Edelstein falls off her bike, and meets Jim Taylor when he stops to ask if she’s alright.

Each version is different, and we follow three alternative lives of Jim and Eva, through decades of career dreams, marital problems, children, love, death and deceit and pretty much everything you could want in a novel. The concept really appealed to me. I love the idea of possible futures diverging from one moment, of exploring what might have been, and how one small insignificant detail – a nail in a road, for example – can change someone’s entire life.

It’s beautifully written, with a distinctive style that I just loved. I found myself on the point of tears so many times while reading this, and not only in the especially sad parts of the book. Sometimes it was just the deftness with which Barnett captures the beauty of life as well as it’s darker moments. The whole narrative is in the present tense, and while I know that’s not everybody’s cup of tea, it absolutely is mine. I especially have a soft spot for omniscient third person present tense that isn’t told in the moment. And I know that’s a mouthful and a confusing one at that. What I mean is, the kind of third person present tense that allows the author to write: ‘Later, Eva will think, If it hadn’t been for that rusty nail, Jim and I would never have met… Now, at the moment of impact, there is only a faint tearing sound, and a soft exhalation of air.’ It’s an intense style that I find really readable as well as beautiful and engaging.

The characters are wonderfully drawn. What I especially like is that Eva and Jim are slightly different in every version, because of course they’re made up of different experiences and different memories. It would have been very easy to make them and the surrounding characters the same in every one, but instead they weren’t. I found that I liked Jim and Eva a lot more in Version Two than in any other version. This is by no means a criticism of Versions One and Three – I love to dislike characters – but it demonstrates how they differ between versions. They both are and aren’t the same people, which is very cleverly done.

Moreover, the supporting characters are strong as well. In several other reviews I’ve criticised books whose central plot is some form of love story for having two very interesting characters in a back-drop of cardboard cut-outs; and I’m very pleased to say that The Versions of Us does not fall into this trap at all. Both Eva and Jim’s parents were intriguing characters, and David too was complex and interesting. I think Ted was one of my favourite characters in the whole book, though he only appears in one of the versions. I wasn’t as convinced by all the children. Sophie and Dylan were the two that emerged as distinct characters in their own right, but the others I sometimes found myself losing track of. However, in a book with a lot of characters – and one in which most characters have three different versions of themselves – I was still very impressed by the characterisation.

I loved this book. I truly did. I have very little to criticise. I’ll admit that I sometimes had to check which version I was in and what had happened before in each version. At times I did get a little confused. I consider myself a fairly careful reader, but I did find myself getting a little lost in terms of which children belonged to which version. However, I think that’s a natural side effect of this great idea, and I can’t think of any perfect solution. I love the way the three narratives interweave with one another, and if occasional confusion is the price of that then I don’t especially mind.

There was one other pernickety detail that bothered me. I don’t want to give too much away even though this happens very early on in the book, but there is one key difference between the beginning of version one and version three. Yet this difference actually doesn’t occur after the moment of Jim and Eva’s first meeting, but before. This slightly grated with me because I liked the idea that these three lives diverge from that one moment. Otherwise, why start there? I’m half convinced that I’ve missed something, and I keep rereading the first three chapters of Part One to work out if I have. But again, a minor point in this wonderful novel.

So I definitely recommend this one. As I’ve said, it centres around a love story (or three), but it’s more about life, about change and chance, about marriage and families, than it is about romance. The plots live up to the premise, and the characters are wonderful. It’s a beautifully moving and elegant book, the kind of novel that people who enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (as I did), or William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, will absolutely love. If you like books that do something slightly different with structure and time, that break the mould as well as break your heart a little, then this is for you.

Greatest strength: The premise, probably. What a great idea, and executed so well.

Greatest weakness: I’m not sure I can quite call it a weakness but I did find myself confused a few times as to which version we were in and which version was which – but I can’t conceived of a way it could have been made easier…

Let’s finish on a quote: ‘They walk away together, out of the allotted grooves of their afternoons and into the thickening shadows of evening, into the dim liminal place where one path if taken, and another missed.’

Next week: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. 

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