Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

"Ten things I've learnt about love" by Sarah Butler (Picador, 2013)

A daughter (Alice) rushes home to see her dying father - "The thing I loved more than anything about Mongolia was the horizon - wider than I've ever seen; endless land and endless sky. I push the front door closed. I'd forgotten how it sticks." (p.11) - but is he her natural father? "'You know - that I love - you,' he says. 'As much - as the others ... It's important. I always - told - your mother - it was important" (p.16).

Alternate chapters are from Alice's PoV. She has sisters Tilly (who's having an affair with a married man; at the end of the book we learn that she's expecting) and Cee (married with 3 children), and an Indian ex, Kal - "Kal used to call Tilly and Cee 'the Terms and Conditions'" (p.19). She goes to the door of his flat - "There's a new mat outside his door - muted rainbow stripes. He wouldn't have bought a new doormat himself. But the label I made - no junk mail please - is still taped to the letter box, the blue felt-tip writing starting to fade. Any new girlfriend, any wife, would have taken that down, surely" (p.33). Later he asks her if she wants to come back.

The other chapters are from the PoV of Daniel, "an old man with a dodgy heart" who sleeps rough or in shelters. They're addressed to "you", the daughter he's never seen. He sends unaddressed birthday cards to her. He's good with words - "He has run up from the bowels of the ship, away from the roar of gas hobs and the slap of meat against chopping boards, the flash of knives and the hard, clipped words of his co-workers" (p.22). He has synaesthesia (there's a lot of it about at the moment). He reminisces about his mother. His father suicided. He meets another drifter who's pining for a daughter, writes a letter for him, helps him send it. We learn that Alice's mother, Juliette, died in a car accident when Alice was young. Perhaps it was suicide. Perhaps she'd decided to elope with Daniel who was an artist then.

Sometimes a scene is described from one PoV is repeated from another. Between chapters are ten-itemed lists, sometimes adumbratory - "Ten things people say to you when your father dies", etc. Alice's father dies. Daniel conveniently sees the funeral announcement, recognises the name, turns up. Kal turns up at the funeral too. While Alice stays on in the house to prepare it for sale, Daniel leaves little gifts made from litter. One day he knocks. He wants to take her to a hidey-hole he's created behind foliage in a park. He's decorated it with found objects. Thanks to his synaesthesia, the colour of the objects represent letters, so the objects spell words if you know the code. When he invites her to go in, she demurs. She goes back later, falls asleep there. She doesn't realise that the little bits of paper she's lying on form a sketch of her mother that Daniel had ripped up only hours before. He finds her, wakes her. She suspects who he might be, but doesn't ask. He thinks it might be best to let things be. He says "'If you stand still in a place, for long enough, it will show itself to you. It takes time, but you find the patterns, and once you find them you can start to feel at home'", which makes her cry. 2 pages later (p.275) there's "I think that maybe it will be a little while before I sit in a plane again, watching the world shrink into patterns beneath me". Like Daniel, she's a wanderer and waxes lyrical - "Buff-coloured Portakabins hunker close to the ground, as if intimidated by all that space in the middle of the city" (p.266).

There's much to compare and contrast - the letters, the static father versus the wandering daughter and father, the out-of-wedlock pregnancies, the way Alice's fathers collected things and kept memories of Juliette, Daniel's memory of his parents compared with Alice's, Juliette's car accident and Daniel's. King Lear is probably a bogus connection, though one might imagine Alice's 2 fathers being the early and late king.

Pearls appear several times, though I couldn't really see a connection - his facial scar is "a thin mother-of-pearl line" (p.72), there are pearls on p.136 and p.166, mother-of-pearl shells on p.177, and on p.269 Daniel explains his colour-code "'F for father. it's white, sort of mother-of-pearl'".

I have 2 doubts about the novel -

  • The themes are standard, not hard to write about - a dying father, a house of memories to empty, 3 sisters who don't get on, an erudite tramp free to wander around describing London, a father in search of his daughter. Having several themes like this in one book is pushing one's luck. I had trouble becoming immersed because the material was too generic. The lists seemed another generic structuring device.
  • Daniel's internal voice is coherent and fluent (much like Alice's). He's self-aware, accurate in his assessments of how others see him. He manages never to give Alice a clue that he's her father. With Alice his conversation is stilted but with others he seems ok. He's had trouble in the past though. Maybe it's that past more than his current mental state that dictates his situation. But that fluency still worries me. And his synaesthesia seems a very convenient literary device.

Other reviews

  • Lisa Gee (The Independent)
  • Maria Russo (New York Times) (This is a novel deeply committed to unfinishedness — the characters speak in sentences that trail off, plot points are left to be guessed at or pieced together. As a literary technique, the elliptical style is enormously effective, keeping the narrative in a constant, trembling state of tension, which gives the lists a grounding effect. This and the charming, gritty and appropriately damp view of London ... make for a novel that often evokes strong feeling, even if a few pages later you may feel manipulated. There are a few things in this book that frustrate, but there are many more than 10 to love)
  • Victoria Sutton
  • John Harding (Daily Mail)
  • Patricia Smith (Washington Independent)

1 comment:

  1. Dear Tim

    I think that you're being a wee bit hard on the author! I read this book last year after spotting it in my local Tesco's and have to say that I really enjoyed it.

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish