When I was little, my sister and I had one of those bedside lights in the shape of a globe. It had a vast expanse of pale blue sea, the countries marked in pink, yellow and green, and we’d spin it and spin it on its stand, see where it stopped and look at all the places we might go one day. Reading Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel, This Must Be The Place, is a little like that – dizzying but exhilarating. Even the beautiful artwork and endpapers remind me of that old globe.
This Must Be The Place, which is O’Farrell’s seventh novel, has all the hallmarks of her earlier ones (you can open any page of any of her books and instantly know it’s by her, I think) but also marks a departure in terms of style and structure.When I saw her speak at the Rooftop Book Club recently (@rooftopbookclub) to a packed audience who hung on her every word and hilarious anecdote (she can tell a really good anecdote) she said she had wanted to do something a bit more experimental, to ‘rip up the rule book’. After the confines of Instructions for a Heatwave where the events took place over 4 days with 4 narrators, she let loose. If the globe is spinning, she is in total control.
The novel starts with the story of Irish American Daniel O’Sullivan, a linguist, setting off from his remote farmhouse in Donegal. It’s so remote when a stranger comes, his wife, Claudette, comes out brandishing a shot gun, to see them off. Why is she so reclusive? On the radio in the car, he hears a voice from the past that will catapult him back twenty years and sets off a whole chain of events. From there on in, we zip around in time, crossing continents, time zones, going from San Francisco to China to New York and back, zooming into the heads of multifarious narrators young and old, male and female.
O’Farrell plays with every convention, telling us what is going to happen to characters before it does, using first person, third person narration, past, present, future. Some of this literary pyrotechnics can be at risk of removing the reader – but here, the emotional power is still very much there. I remember a reader’s review of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (still my favourite one of hers ever) where the person complained they couldn’t follow it because she didn’t use speechmarks and was confused by the timeshifts but that was easy compared to this. It’s true you do need to concentrate, but what you get is layers upon layers; I found if I stopped worrying about who was who and what impact, if any, they were going to have on the story, and just listen to them, I could sit back and enjoy the journey. I could read a whole book on some of the periphery characters who come, say their piece, and vanish again.
The only reservation I had with the novel as a whole was the section of photographs – a vintage scarf, a hospital ID band, an ashtray in the shape of a star. Whilst fascinating in themselves I’m not sure they served the story but rather interrupted it. I loved Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts… where the entire book is done like this to illustrate the breakdown of a relationship, but here I can’t see what they add – but O’Farrell reportedly fought to keep them in. I don’t know – I’m open to persuasion.
When Maggie O’Farrell’s first book, After You’d Gone, came out 16 years ago, I remember being a bit sniffy about it to my eternal shame. I picked it up a few times in the book shop but there was something about those icy blue covers or something that put me off. And then on a Greek holiday someone had kindly left behind her next one My Lover’s Lover, a sort of modern Gothic psychological thriller with shades of Rebecca, and I devoured it. Then went back and read the first and I was hooked. And have been a fan ever since.
Her similes are always unusual, visually arresting, but spot on. There is a scene in My Lover’s Lover where a character cleans a floor with a mop and then watches the floor dry – and it is so beautifully described. She can write really good sex scenes, which is a rare skill. She can create characters that live and breathe so you go on to think about them long after the book has finished. The stories she creates always wield real emotional power, with endlessly fascinating sibling and family dynamics. At the heart of This Must Be The Place there is a marriage in freefall – will it survive? Where do we call home and what choices have led us there?
The news of a new Maggie O’Farrell novel starts with a whisper; the hint of a title, the tantalising glimpse of a cover, the release of a chapter, an extract. Through it all, the writer herself remains elusive – she famously doesn’t do social media and there is just the occasional sporadic update on her author Facebook page. It’s a strange dichotomy – I actually like the fact she remains elusive, fiercely guarding her family’s privacy and appearing to do a flurry of interviews and appearances on nationwide book tours then back to her real life. And at the same time I want to read everything, want to know everything, want to hear more and more and then have to wait. Until the next one.
This Must Be The Place by Maggie O’Farrell is out now published by Tinder Press. Thanks to them for my coveted review copy.