This is a love story. The action takes place over a single day; Margaret is a bankrupt accountant, an unmarried, recovering alcoholic and Jonathan is a civil servant, at the time in an interim period between an election. He has been married but is now divorced, he has one daughter, Rebecca.
How these two met, and what has led them to the day in question – a day which has started, and is looking like ending, badly is the substance of the narrative.
The sections are labelled with the time of day, and it begins with Jonathan at daybreak trying to free a baby blackbird from some unsuitable fruit netting in his ex-wife’s Chiswick garden, this humane activity is going to make him late for work, and an important meeting.
Meg, on the other hand, starts her day in a gynaecological clinic and although she has had to arrive at a given time, she has had to wait quite a long time before she is actually seen. To add to her distress, one of the other patients is clearly an inmate of some female prison and has to be accompanied by a guard, who is actually chained to her (or the other way round – to whom she is chained).
The plan for the day, though, is that Jon and Meg will meet at lunchtime. However, there are all sort of hurdles which rise before them which prevent this, so the meeting gets postponed.
Alongside the narrative, there is back story for both characters and also quite a lot of font changes. The narrative is in a regular font; their thoughts, which appear interspersed throughout the progression of the day, are in italic; there is also a third eye in a slighter larger font which seem to be verbal snapshots of ordinary London situations – families on the Underground, incidents on platforms, women having coffee – although it is clear that there is an observer, it does not become plain, until nearer the end of the novel, who this is.
There is yet another font, sort of ‘handwriting’, that represents letters exchanged between Sophie and Mr August, a post office box correspondence which is also a cover for another sort of correspondence, but who is writing to whom and why?
I love A L Kennedy! I listen to her on Point of View on Radio 4 – I admire and mostly agree with her opinions, most especially recently in her assessment of the Kirkaldy Testing Museum in Southwark Street. This appears again in this novel. In case you don’t know, David Kirkaldy was an inventor of machines for measuring. It is a marvellous building and the motto, carved into the pediment is “Facts not Opinions”. This appeals to Jon and in his small, albeit illegal, way he is trying to disseminate facts about how government works. For all I know, A L Kennedy may share his view!?
No one wants contact with actual, undeniable information: it’s the equivalent of shit, you don’t want to touch it. If information exists then it should be known and it must be consulted. If it’s consulted in advance then those we serve will feel constrained by it, oppressed – like having their legs jammed under a pub table. And if information exists to lie in wait, to reproach them in retrospect, point out wiser paths not taken, or just plain inevitable failures … Then it can feel like a reproach, which is upsetting. Opinions Not Facts – these are our watchwords. Run a Discovery. Stay Vague. If reality is malleable then anyone can do what they like: either join the mediocracy, be a mediocrat and pursue nothing much, or else be a zealot and design impermissible calamities you’re sure you can withstand while others of less worth will perish as they should. [My underlining]
The metaphors in this book are original, graphic and telling; whole sections of the book hit the solar plexus and leave the reader slightly breathless. Painfully observant about the way we obsess about ourselves, agonisingly accurate about relationships and yet at times, immensely funny and kind.
I will be exceedingly surprised if this novel is not on the shortlist. I have enjoyed it, but it is not quite a great book. I have only one more book to read.
I am afraid this is one of the more disappointing longlists of recent years, some of these are worthy books but great literature – no. I have read many books better than this in the last year, but since I cannot not tell what was presented to the judges for consideration there is no way I can establish why these were chosen above another.
I have said before, some notable titles are missing: the new Julian Barnes – Noise of Time [but he rubbished the Man Booker so that might be a clue]; the new William Boyd – Sweet Caress [Boyd eminently back on form]; the new Rose Tremain – The Gustav Sonata; Maggie O’Farrell – This Must Be the Place; Thomas Keneally – Napoleon’s Last Island; any one of three Shakespeare for the 21st Century novels – Jeanette Winterson, Anne Tyler and Howard Jacobson, the list of missing titles is pretty endless. Of the less notable authors where was Sarah Perry, Chris Cleave, Guinevere Glasfurd et al?
So if you are looking for a recommendation of books for your own TBR list, any one of the above before any one except Madeleine Thien – Do not Say We Have Nothing.