|This Must Be the Place by Maggie O'Farrell|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Rebecca Foster|
|Summary: Spreading outward from Ireland and reaching into every character's past and future, O'Farrell's globe-trotting seventh novel has all her trademark insight into familial and romantic relationships. Time, regret and communication failures may wreak havoc, but there are always chances to make it right. As ever, expect gorgeous prose and precise imagery.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 483||Date: May 2016|
|Publisher: Tinder Press|
|External links: Author's website|
The Richard and Judy Book Club Summer 2017
Maggie O'Farrell's globe-trotting seventh novel opens in 2010 with Daniel Sullivan, an American linguistics professor. He lives with his wife Claudette, a French actress who retreated from the limelight, and their two children in a remote home in Donegal. It was 10 years ago that he first came here and met Claudette by chance when her van had a flat tire; he struck up a conversation with her son Ari and gave the boy tips for dealing with his stutter. Now, preparing to fly back to Brooklyn for his father's ninetieth birthday party, he's caught short by a long-lost voice he hears on the radio. It belongs to Nicola Janks, a former lover he last saw 24 years ago; when he learns that she died soon after they were together, he determines to figure out whether he played a role, even if he doesn't like what he finds.
Daniel's first-person narration is a delight: the joy he takes in language is evident, and he often gives three synonyms where one would do, his sections full of abstruse words like sessile, nefarious, byzantine, perspicuous, and so on. However, the book shifts between the perspectives of most characters, announcing at the head of each chapter their name, location, and year. In this way we go back and forth in time to learn more about Claudette, who got her start in showbiz when she met a Swedish director in London; her brother, Lucas, and his infertility struggle with wife Maeve; Marithe and Calvin, Claudette's children with Daniel; Niall and Phoebe, Daniel's children by his first wife; Teresa, Daniel's mother; and so on. Each character is so distinctive that it isn't a particular challenge to keep track of the sizeable cast.
This is the widest scope O'Farrell has attempted yet, and that's both a good and a bad thing. I did wonder whether there were maybe a few too many characters and plot threads. She follows her characters to Cumbria, London, the Scottish borders, Paris, New York, California, Sweden, Goa, China and Bolivia – with all these disparate locations and the title itself suggesting the nomadic modern condition and the fallacy of believing that a new place is the solution to any problem. The sad truth, of course, is that wherever we go we take ourselves with us, and so Claudette cannot outrun her fear of betrayal any more than Daniel can escape his alcoholism or the consequences of how he treated Nicola.
O'Farrell is largely loyal to her usual present-tense narration. Daniel's is the only first-person voice, which seems rather a shame. The novel experiments with style in its first quarter – using the first-person plural and then the second person for Claudette's opening segment; including lots of footnotes in Niall's plucky child-spy sequence; and, in the most original section of all, relating scraps of Claudette's acting career through an auction catalogue of memorabilia relating to her – but soon settles into a more conventional pattern. Once the Nicola mystery is cleared up, there are no major revelations to wait around for. This means that the novel sprawls for too long. It could have been cut by a quarter and retained its power.
In spite of all my guardedly negative comments, this is still a vintage Maggie O'Farrell novel, which means it's chock full of keen wisdom about how families work and what goes wrong in love affairs. Here there is also a strong theme of how miscommunication – whether stuttering, difficult accents, or a simple failure to understand each other – can complicate things. And, as ever, there's O'Farrell's gorgeous prose and precise imagery:
She squints up at the New York sky – a hazy, china-blue bolt of cloth, cross-stitched with white vapour threads.
Thistles, water and snapped antlers litter the tartan carpet in a confused arc.
They had passed lakes of startling, unreal cerulean, … geysers belching sulphurous steam, flocks of cerise flamingos, fastidiously high-stepping through the algae.
I have always felt that O'Farrell expertly straddles the (perhaps imaginary) line between literary and popular fiction; her books are addictively readable but also hold up to critical scrutiny. I didn't like this latest quite as much as The Hand That First Held Mine, which I consider her masterpiece, but this is certainly a worthy follow-up to Instructions for a Heatwave, which in a sense paved the way for its international nature.
As Daniel concludes, it's not where you've been in the past or where you might go in the future that matters, but where you are and what you make of life right now: 'We must purse what's in front of us, not what we can't have or what we have lost. We must grasp what we can reach and hold on, fast.'
I must thank Tinder Press for so graciously sending an advanced copy – it was quite the treat for this O'Farrell fan.
You can read more book reviews or buy This Must Be the Place by Maggie O'Farrell at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy This Must Be the Place by Maggie O'Farrell at Amazon.com.
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