There are some books that leave you feeling both completely uplifted and utterly devastated, all at once. I know it sounds implausible, such a dichotomy of emotions, yet these books are often the ones that leave us feeling the most enriched by the experience. Alison Moore’s He Wants is such a book.
Lewis is a man who seems to be stuck in a rut. He is at the end of middle age yet not quite on the cusp of old age. He goes and looks after his father, Lawrence, at the old people’s home and yet his daughter, Ruth, comes round every morning to look after him and deliver soup that he actually doesn’t want. He has recently retired as his role as an RE (religious education) teacher yet having been widowed sometime a go he has no one to share his retirement with, just time and his own thoughts. He spends most of his days at home apart from when he goes to visit his second favourite pub, and that is probably how he will go on spending it. What Lewis isn’t expecting is a blast from the past, in the form of an old friend Sydney, to turn up one day and Lewis’ comfortable, if boring from the outside, life is shaken up.
As we follow Lewis through his day to day existence, often veering off on one of his nostalgic moments, we build a picture very much of the everyman. It is not that Lewis has not had dreams and desires, or that he has failed to accomplish many of them. It is more that Lewis is a man who has been happy in the village he was brought up in, happy to following his father’s footsteps to be a teacher, happy to fall in love and marry a good woman and just live the life he leads. No matter how conventional. It is not that he is ineffectual, he has just been happy with his lot and has never questioned otherwise. Suddenly seventy or so years have gone by and life has been perfectly fine and good, is that not enough? As he spends his time thinking about the past, the choices he has made, what could of been and also about the future and what may or may not lay ahead, should he have lived life a little more on the edge of his seat, has he wasted time?
When the school recruited a new librarian who was a single lady of Lewis’ age, Lewis became a big reader of whatever classics the library carried. As he returned each of these books at the end of the loan period, he attempted to discuss them with her, but each time, Edie, eyeing the Austen, the Eliot, the Woolf, would say, ‘I haven’t read it. It’s not my sort of thing.’
On their first date, they did not talk about books; they talked about food, what they had or had not eaten in their lives. ‘I’ve never had beef Wellington,’ said Edie. ‘I’ve never had black pudding,’ said Lewis.
When Lewis and Edie had been courting for a year, Lewis’s father asked if he planned to marry Edie. He asked again, many times, over the years, saying to Lewis, ‘What are you waiting for?’ They had been a couple for seven years before Lewis finally got around to proposing. After a three-year engagement, they married in the summer of 1977.
This is where the main theme of the book comes to the fore. All the different versions we have of ‘want’ in our lives. All the things we have wanted in the past, the things we didn’t want but somehow got, the things we wanted to ask for but were too shy or scared, the things we thought we wanted but actually didn’t, what we want for and from others, the things we want to forget, the things we want right now at this moment, the things we want for the future. Moore wonderfully describes all these things as Lewis assesses his life, even by the chapter titles throughout like ‘He does not want soup’, ‘When he was a child, he wanted to go to the moon’, ‘He wants a time machine’. All these thoughts and wants are covered by Moore in under two hundred pages, it is quite marvellous.
Aging and the world moving on around us while we stop and contemplate or just stop full stop, is also another major aspect of the novel. Lewis sees with his own eyes that once Edie died the world just carried on around him and without her, how can that be? As I mentioned before he is also at the end of middle age yet not quite on the cusp of old age, looking after yet being looked after too. Yet what defines old age, do we really have to pop to the shop and only buy beige when we hit a certain birthday? I loved this aspect of the novel which often adds a real sense of emotion, as we see Lawrence’s decline in the home, and yet some hilarious moments as Lewis tries to grapple with the real world.
When the computer is ready, Lewis opens up his email, finding new messages in bold. Someone he knows – a friend of his or someone he’s acquainted with – keeps sending him pictures, but Ruth says he mustn’t open them, he mustn’t look. ‘That’s not a friend,’ she says. One email says he is due thousands of pounds, but there is a link he must click on to claim the money, and he daren’t. ‘Incompetent in love,’ says another. He does not want cheap Viagra or SuperViagra; he does not want bigger, harder, longer-lasting erections. He does not want a nineteen-year-old Russian girl or an Australian virgin who wants to talk. He doesn’t not want a replica Rolex watch or a fake Gucci handbag.
He Wants is also a book which both makes the reader work with it. Moore doesn’t think we are stupid, she wants us to be a part of it all and form our own opinions as we fill in the gaps. The way in which He Wants is constructed is neither linear, nor is it a case of alternating between the present and the past. Each chapter hops skips and jumps between different parts of Lewis’s life until towards the end when we have built up the picture, little clues being handed to us here and there, and can work out where it’s all going? Or do we? As with The Lighthouse you might get a surprise or two as you read on.
It almost seems lazy to compare He Wants with The Lighthouse further, as they are very different novels in many, many ways. Yet Moore’s writing does some of the same marvellous things in both. Firstly the wonderful ‘did I really just read that?’ moments where something really shocking or revealing will happen in the middle of what seems such a pedestrian (which sounds so wrong as the story and writing are anything but pedestrian, but you know what I mean) memory or seemingly insignificant act. We have to read back to believe our eyes. She works wonderfully with the everyday and making it darker and edgier whilst all the more realistic at once. She also might just leave you to go off and work it all out; I will elaborate no further as I do not want to spoil what is just a wonderful and brilliant reading experience.
He Wants will easily be one of my books of the year. Alison Moore’s writing is so deft in so many ways it is hard to try and do it justice, or without spoiling any of the many delights, twists/surprises and ‘did I just actually read that then?’ moments which the novel has in store. So I will reiterate what I said at the start, He Wants left me feeling both completely uplifted and utterly devastated, all at once. It is a perfect example of the sort of book I want to be reading. I loved it.
If you would like to hear more about the book, you can her myself and Alison Moore on this episode of You Wrote The Book. Have you read The Lighthouse or He Wants and if so what did you think? I am very much looking forward to reading Alison’s short story collection, The Pre-War House and Other Stories, in the non too distant future.