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Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love by Sarah Butler – Review

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Ten Things I’ve Learnt about Love is a haunting, exquisitely written novel about love and loss, grief and guilt, home and belonging. It weaves two parallel, seemingly unconnected stories in alternating chapters. Gradually, the connections between the two are revealed.

The first thread is narrated by Alice, who has been called back to London from her travels in Mongolia because her father is dying from pancreatic cancer.

The second story belongs to Daniel, a homeless man nearing sixty, who spends his days wandering the streets of London, endlessly searching for the daughter he has never met. He collects little scraps of paper, string, foil and lost things like gloves and buttons, fashioning them into treasures, spelling out a secret code. He has a form of synesthesia – seeing letters as possessing a particular colour trait – but it is so subtly done and not spelt out as such. His words are like a refrain, a mantra:

Orange-red, dark purple, magnolia, green, charcoal grey, chestnut brown, Breathe. Gold, silver, lilac, charcoal grey.

The third character is the city of London itself. Much more than a mere backdrop or setting, it is a London that most of us don’t see, or would be there if only we looked. The book is, the author says in the acknowledgements, a love letter to London.

Each segment begins with a list of ten things such as, ‘Ten inappropriate thoughts during my father’s funeral’ or ‘Ten things I’d rather forget’ which are, by turns, funny and revelatory, but never mawkish. The whole book is shot through with humour.

For Alice, being back in the family home brings back memories of never fitting in, of not belonging, of the feeling that her father loved her two elder sisters, Cee and Tilly, more than her. Her mother died when she was four, killed in a car accident on her way to pick Alice up from ballet, but questions still hover over the circumstances – exactly where was her mother coming from?

What really stood out for me in this novel was the way in which Butler moves the story forwards, whilst simultaneously weaving in the backstory. It seems so effortless, gliding seamlessly from present to past, memories springing up as Alice clears out her father’s house ready to be sold, although listening to this Picador podcast, reveals just how hard Butler worked, to find their distinct voices, to differentiate between them. I love the fact she went on a writing workshop with Jackie Kay and Ali Smith -what a duo to be inspired by!

I had been wanting to read ‘Ten Things’ since reading a first person feature with the author in Red magazine and a sample on the Picador website or on Kindle, I forget which, drew me in further.  I have found myself thinking about it constantly since finishing it, greedily in a couple of sittings, and have started from the beginning again. A stunning debut.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Alison,
    I’m so glad you enjoyed this novel. I’ve heard good things about it and I was immediately interested in the London setting. I’ve not gotten the chance to read it yet but it’s very good to hear that it’s not maudlin, as books with these themes can be if not in deft hands.

    February 7, 2013
  2. greenie01 #

    Oh I LOVE the sound of this one Alison, it sounds right up my street. I’m going to have to stop reading your blogs they cost me money 🙂

    February 7, 2013
  3. I almost never create remarks, however i did a few searching and wound up
    here Ten Things Ive Learnt About Love by Sarah Butler – Review | Alison Percival.
    And I actually do have a couple of questions for you if it’s allright. Could it be only me or does it give the impression like some of these comments come across like they are coming from brain dead people? 😛 And, if you are writing on additional online sites, I would like to follow everything fresh you have to post. Would you list of every one of your communal pages like your twitter feed, Facebook page or linkedin profile?

    July 16, 2013

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