For those long enduring (is that the right word, it sounds a little painful which I hope reading this blog isn’t) followers of Savidge Reads, you will know that one of the authors I hold in very high esteem is Maggie O’Farrell. I was actually introduced to Maggie one summer when I was staying with my Gran in my hometown of Matlock and we spent a week reading, pottering around bookshops and having cream tea. I ran out of books I had brought and she popped The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox into my hands and didn’t hear a peep out of me for the rest of the day until dinner. From then on I have loved everyone of the books she has published since and I think her latest, This Must Be The Place, might be my favourite of her novels yet because its bloody brilliant.
In essence This Must Be The Place is the novel of a marriage. Admittedly if that was how the book had been sold to me I admit, well if it wasn’t written by Maggie O’Farrell, I would have possibly rolled my eyes and muttered ‘oh how original’ under my breathe. For let us be honest books about marriage are hardly original are they? Yet here I do think that Maggie O’Farrell gives us something in the ‘marriage plot’ genre that is quirklily unusual, delightfully original and is also completely and utterly wonderful. But I should really tell you some more about the book shouldn’t I, though admittedly it is hard because there is a little mystery that I don’t want to give away. I shall do my best…
As the novel opens we meet Daniel as he watches a man, who he thinks is a photographer, watching his house. That is until his wife, Claudette, comes around the corner brandishing a gun (with one of their children firmly on her arm) and putting the fear of god into the man who has come into the middle of the Irish countryside where they reside together. However this is not really the start of their story, in fact we soon discover that we are somewhere in the middle of the story of Daniel and Claudette and as we read on we are thrown in all different directions in and around their marriage before and after this moment.
If that makes things sound like they are going to be all over the place, complicatedly time hopping here there and everywhere fret not. What Maggie O’Farrell does is give the reader a wonderful kaleidoscope like set of patchwork pieces of stories that we stitch together as we read before making a wonderful huge patchwork quilt we can luxuriate in. Yes we do go off into many different timeframes, never really in order and we do head off into different countries and different people’s heads, which you would think would distance us from the main story, oddly it makes us closer to it and see it from all these different angles. In fact really it becomes a patchwork of a couples life, the lives around them and the way we sometimes have a butterfly effect on each other, a small act of kindness we think insignificant becomes something huge and life changing to someone else, a moment of foolishness by someone else can lead to a life altering event for someone else, etc. I found this really fascinating as it looks at people’s lives from the inside and the outside, something we forget to do from time to time.
Anyway, the older, longer sluggish Marithe had looked up at the stars and asked her mother, who was sitting in the chair opposite, whether it would come back, this sense of being inside your life, not outside of it.
Claudette had put down her book and thought for a moment. And then she had said something that made Marithe cry. She’d said: Probably not, my darling girl, because what you’re describing comes of growing up but you get something else instead. You get wisdom, you get experience. Which could be seen as compensation, could it not?
Marithe felt those tears prickling at her eyelids now. To never feel that again, the idea of yourself as one unified being, not two or three splintered selves who observed and commented on each other. To never be that person again.
You may also think so many different narrators and perspectives might also make the novel and it’s characters a little gimmicky or two dimensional, in some authors hands that would be the case but not in this instance. O’Farrell creates a large cast of characters who come fully formed with some wonderful insights into Daniel and Claudette as well as their own stories which add to the reading experience. Somehow in a book that is just under 500 pages (O’Farrell’s longest) she covers adoption, cultural clashes, celebrity, infidelity, art and culture, nuclear families, love, death, grief, loss, illness, gun crime, separation, marriage, fate, co-dependency vs. independence and more, the list goes on and on. It is remarkable and shows the vibrancy and diversity of everything we human beings go through. It celebrates people and their lives, each time you meet a new character you become fully absorbed in them. One of the standouts for me was one of Daniel’s children Niall whose story of having eczema will stay with me for a long, long time. I genuinely felt what he felt.
Niall feels his eyes fill, feels the burn take hold. His hands spring upright of their own accord and begin to tear at his neck in a sawing motion, back and forth, across the skin of his throat. The feel of it is an exquisite, forebidden, torturing release. Yes, he tells himself, you are scratching, you are, even though you shouldn’t, but how good it is, how amazing, but how dreadful it will be when he stops, if he stops, if he can ever end it.
If it wasn’t for the fact that we come back to Daniel and Claudette for a chapter or two between the other alternating voices you might feel this was really a collection of interweaving short stories based around anecdotes passed between a cast of people who appear and reappear, but then isn’t that what our lives are really built on anyway? It shows though that Maggie O’Farrell is really experimenting and pushing the boundaries on her writing and as I hinted at in the introduction I do think this might be her most accomplished novels. Though accomplished makes it sound like I am going to give her a ‘well done’ sticker for good behaviour rather than the truth which is that she exceeded all my expectations and showed me what wonders the novel can do.
I loved how she played with form. In one chapter we go through an auction catalogue of some of Claudette’s possessions (I know I have avoided talking about Claudette and Daniel specifically but seriously, I don’t want to spoil their secrets and the events that become the heart of the novel, it is a huge part of its brilliance) from her twenties. One is told through an interview with an ex spouse. Another, one of my favourites, is told by someone who loves footnotes; their real story being revealed through the footnotes they interweave in their own narrative. She also plays with giving the reader more insight than the characters have, she might kill off a character in a mere line that we the reader get and yet no one else will pick up on until it happens many years later for them. She may send the story off before the main characters are even born, it is never gimmicky and always deftly done. There is no showing off, just some really stunning writing such as the below which is just a mere part of the book and shows you what she can do in a paragraph.
She doesn’t know it at the time but she will think about this moment again and again, the two of the standing on the steps of the subway station, a boy between them, a pool of blood at their feet, trains arriving and departing above their heads. She will play it over and over in her head, almost every day, for the rest of her life. When she lies in the bedroom of her apartment with only hours to live, her daughters bickering in the kitchen, her husband in the front room, weeping or raging, her son asleep in the chair next to her, she will think of it again and know it is perhaps for the last time. After this, she thinks, it will only live in the head of one person, and when he dies, it will be gone.
I could go on much, much more though I won’t because really I just want you to go and pick up This Must Be The Place because I think it is fantastic and quite a special book indeed. I have loved Maggie O’Farrell’s writing for such a long time and this just affirmed her as one of my favourite living authors, I am so, so excited about what she might do next. The only downside for me is that my Gran never got to read this, so I can’t chat about it with her which made me feel much more emotional than I was expecting. I have got a copy for my Mum though, which will be her first novel by Maggie O’Farrell so I am spreading the love, as I hope I will do to any of you who have yet to read her work. If you have, and indeed if you have read This Must Be The Place, I would love to have a good old natter with you about it.
Oh and if you would like to see Maggie talking about the book without spoilers, I got her to answer ten tenuous questions about it here.