Monday 19 February 2024

Guest review by Graeme Fife: ONE DAY by David Nicholls


"I fall upon life’s thorns, I bleed..." Ode to the West Wind, Percy Bysshe Shelley. "Always look on the bright side of life..." Life of Brian, Monty Python

Graeme Fife is a regular reviewer here. He has written many plays, stories, features and talks for radio, stage plays and articles for newspapers and magazines, and is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent. He's the author of a string of books - children's stories, biography, works of history and fiction. His novel of the French Revolution, No Common Assassin, tells the story of Charlotte Corday. His latest publication, Memory's Ransom, is published by Conrad Press. 

I came to this exceptional novel via the outstanding adaptation Nicholls made of Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd with Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba – I recommend it most heartily.

The novel begins with two people in the immediate aftermath of university graduation. Those of us who have enjoyed that singular blessing may ask: graduation from what, exactly?

As if from the calm swimming pool – knowledge from books and received study - into the open sea of tides, cross current, deeps shallows, a shelving bottom that offers little purchase or support, winds and surges, youthful intentions and dreams tested to breaking, friendships drifting away on divergent paths, promises lost in the breeze, the steady backing of even ignorant innocence caught up and crumpled in uncharitable reality, the harsh world of out there. Some attractions survive but wobble in the onset of maturity – stumbling career paths, the merry-go-round of weddings which may fracture the old bonds even further (posh dos in select venues) and the dizzying whirligig of children and family which hampers even the possibility of being settled. Settled in the realisation that there is no such thing as settled, that there is no full stop, only the faint idea of one whereas we all find ourselves on a hanging comma on which we must sit as on a swing in a hidden garden…

All this Nicholls explores in acutely observed and sympathetic detail, at once moving, touching, comic (a ghastly parlour game…family ‘fun’). He shirks no emotion, neither set-back nor upset, or falter, describing friendships, love and relationship with piercing candour and a most sensitive courtesy as if to say: ‘This is how it is, this is how it works out for many of us, be aware…’ Even plumbing the airless depths of grief without flinching. Be prepared to weep.

His structure hinges on a straightforward calendar account: twenty years of existence which charts the momentum of self-discovery, of negotiating pitfalls, finding new friends, reassessing former attachments, always searching for a liaison which may signal contentment. After a brief explosion of passion at university which might point to a romance future and lifelong devotion, the central characters, Emma and Dexter, separate and might never have met again save for a last-minute snatch of phone number. Their friendship skips and hops in the course of career and new partnerships, break-up and dissatisfaction, albeit the strong pull of their mutual attraction – of amity rather than romance – lingers and strengthens. They have affairs with other partners and meet, coincidentally, at parties given by mutual friends yet the bond persists and the question hovers: ‘Why are they not together?’ Life supervenes must be the answer and what is there more powerful than what might be.

A woman of my acquaintance in her early forties, unmarried, had been dumped by her ‘lovely lover’ (her words) and relaying this to a friend of long date – similar age, married with children, in that state which Nicholls describes as apparently living a life with a ‘background hum of comfort, satisfaction and familiarity’, a state of being periodically appealing to the lonely singleton – she wept bitterly, heaving sobs of misery. And the friend said: ‘Jos, you won’t believe this but I envy you…’ Jos, taken aback, between gulps and sobs managed to say: ‘En…vy…me?’ ‘Yes, for still being able to feel as deeply as you do.’

In a way, that’s the essence of this wonderful novel, a fearless, kindly, honest accompaniment through the darkened thickets of hard-won experience, perhaps, to the Golden Bough of self-knowledge. As one of his large cast of memorable characters says at one stage of the rocky, seemingly aimless journey remarks: ‘We’re just feeling our way, that’s all.’

And best accept that that is all we can ever do. No one can teach us how to live life better, that’s a modern delusion. Self-help? Balderdash. Get real, read this book.

And again:

He: ‘I just mean. I don’t know…When I was younger everything seemed possible, now nothing does.’

She, for whom the opposite was true, simply said: ‘It’s not as bad as all that.’

He: ‘So there’s a bright side, is there? To your wife running off with your best mate –‘

The word memorable is overused, maybe, but in this case it’s at least apposite, workable, meant, and there are some books which it hurts to finish. That does not preclude the joys of reading them all the way through, you know as well as I, after the heat of the sauna the pleasurable frisson of the cold plunge.

Nicholls writes with finesse and style, the rhythms of his prose both seductive and persuasive, the vocabulary smartly handled, the similes stand-out.

Graeme Fife's Memory's Ransom is published by The Conrad Press.  

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