it was not love at first reading but rather appreciation on second reading! First time around I read it for enjoyment but I persevered through it without real enthusiasm or enjoyment. But given its wide acclaim, I felt I needed to make more of an effort and read it systematically and with intent! Determined to discover the charms that escaped me the first time around.
Daniel and Elisabeth, the central characters of the book, are bound by a deep friendship, despite the age gap between them. They first meet when Elisabeth is 8 and Daniel is already a very old man. Their friendship is the real thing and we learn this when Daniel says to Elisabeth and her mum “ Very pleased to meet you both. Finally”. “How do you mean finally? We only moved here six weeks ago”. “The lifelong friends, we sometimes wait a lifetime for them”. Such a wonderful way to express what a real friendship feels like when one finds it! Here was a phrase to fall in love with.
And one thing I am sure about is that the author caught the Zeitgeist: Brexit, Trump, anti- immigration sentiments, the murder of an MP (no prizes for guessing whom this refers to) modern day alienation, casualisation of university lecturing and the limited prospects of decent jobs that would enable young people to contemplate a place of their own, kafkaesque efforts to renew a passport or to register with a GP and much more. The book ticks all the boxes!
But beyond the Zeitgeist, the book is also about some pretty big issues to: friendship, as mentioned above, life and death; and above all how we experience time given that the book moves back and forth and often we are not sure where in time the thinking process of the characters is taking place.
The writing style is certainly unconventional. Reviewers have described it as ” fearless, non-linear, galloping; as if everything is happening simultaneously”. It was sometimes difficult to tell whether the characters were speaking or thinking! It seemed to me that there were many surrealistic scenes and descriptions; even hallucinations. For example “ he pulls out of his chest a free-floating mass of the colour orange”. Or when Daniel “is” inside a Scots pine. And the chapters are not conventional chapters either. Sometimes just one page long. That was fine by me. Conventions are not holy cows. And as a plus, I enjoyed the clever play with words: college and collage; and “ As still as death in the bed. But still. Still here”.
Plot wise, again conventions are set aside. The book offers no purposeful plot. It is rather the plot of the life of the characters as they were living it in the present, in the past and in their imagination or surreal thoughts. I felt I was revisitoing the unfolding of some real life events that I am old enough to remember, especially the Profumo and Christine Keeler scandal back in the 60s; but I knew nothing about the 1960s artist Pauline Boty.
Rage and anger about present issues, nostalgia of the past, awe of nature, resignation about the absurdities of modern life are sentiments felt deeply by the people inhabiting the book. But above all the warmth of Elisabeth and Daniel enduring friendship gives the reader a warm feeling about life “where there are roses, there are still roses. In the damp and the cold, on a bush that looks done, there’s a wide-open rose. Look at the colour of it”. This is how the book ends. I am grateful for this upbeat ending. I felt I had discovered what to take with me once I closed the book.