And so, the long awaited day dawned of the announcement of the Man Booker longlist. I say long awaited – long awaited mainly by those who work in literary publishing and by those who seem to eagerly wait 365 days to complain about it. It dawned two hours earlier for me in fact, as I was in a holiday villa on the coast of Turkey at the time. The world of publishing for once seemed a distant dream, and reading the longlist by an azure pool it was a challenge to pull myself back to those daily realms of literary fiction. Books never let you get away that easily of course. I had stuffed my suitcase with the novels I had missed out on over the past few months (being an editorial assistant leaves a scarily slim amount of time in which to read outside of your own list I have found!). I had also given one very special book to the long suffering boyfriend to carry in his hand luggage, because as I very clearly explained to him as he staggered through security, as there was NO WAY I was letting a proof of David Nicholls’ Us go in the HOLD.
So imagine my delight that unwittingly, I had brought my first longlist candidate on holiday with me – the much anticipated follow up to the literary sensation that was One Day.
It goes without saying, there is a lot riding on this publication. A novel as beloved as One Day is always going to be a challenge to follow. I have to say that I was not disappointed and would contend I enjoyed it more than its cherished predecessor. The story follows Douglas Peterson, an ordinary man in an ordinary job whose wife turns to him one night in bed and tells him she may be leaving him. The judgment will fall after their teenage son, monosyllabic Albie, has finally gone off to study photography at university. This leaves Douglas one summer to prove to his wife how much he still loves her, as they embark on a family interrailing version of the Grand Tour.
The set up plays to Nicholls’ greatest strengths as a writer, primarily his ability to showcase the everyman and have us embrace him. No protagonist could be more down to earth, more innately knowable than Douglas. The book becomes a deconstruction of an entire marriage, drawing out the history of the relationship to evaluate whether this middle aged couple should stay together, however much our narrator believes that they must. Douglas isn’t perfect, but for a man who spends most of the book narrating his foibles, I found him wonderfully easy to root for. The narrative voice is full of humour and genial confusion about the realities of familial life. It isn’t a book of extremes. In the real world, fathers and sons aren’t always mirror images of each other and neither are they constantly embroiled in heated family feuds. Sometimes they are just slightly different, with varying interests they have to learn to mutually respect. A book like Us picks up on these realities, those of slight bemusement and playful jibing rather than out and out war. Similarly, when a couple drift apart and contemplate the end of their union, it isn’t always blazing rows and fireworks. The end can be slow, meandering and in the end, just quite sad.
I realised one of the reasons I enjoyed Douglas as a narrator quite so much is that he is in his own way, a devoted and loving man who doesn’t always see that same love returned to him. There are so many of these men in the world, but sometimes it can feel like we are only ever presented with the cheats, scoundrels and aggressors. It is a breath of fresh air to experience him. The backdrop of continental Europe as a set-up for this scene to play out lends itself to the humour of the situation, as Douglas struggles to understand most of the art he is being forced to look at, around galleries he is sure he should really be enjoying.
In conclusion, I believe that this novel is a brilliant success, utilising all of Nicholls’ greatest skills as an author. The structure doesn’t tie him down in the way that One Day sadly had to. We don’t have to suspend our disbelief to believe that all THOSE events happened on this one very eventful day every year (did they ever look back at their lives and notice that? ‘Gosh Dexter, d’you ever get the feeling a lot seems to go wrong in the summer for us?’). Through good will, humour and wonderful narration, Nicholls brings with new immediacy the realities of a marriage breakdown, leaving us guessing whether Douglas will eventually succeed in winning Connie back. You’ll have to read yourself to find out whether he is successful, and I highly recommend you do.
(I mean even Russell Crowe likes it – have to admit I didn’t see that one coming.)
Us is out 30th September 2014 from Hodder and Stoughton.
I am going to let you in on a secret, Us by David Nicholls is a most elegant and painful thing of beauty. Published in September. Read it.
— Russell Crowe (@russellcrowe) July 31, 2014