O’Far­rell blends epic and in­ti­mate

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - Mag­gie O’Far­rell Tin­der Press, £18.99 Re­view by Les­ley McDow­ell

FOR a writer as phe­nom­e­nally suc­cess­ful and ex­pe­ri­enced as Mag­gie O’Far­rell, a Sun­day Times best-seller as well as a Costa award­win­ner, there can be few chal­lenges left, few moun­tains more to climb. Where she can go next, one won­ders, as one be­gins this lat­est novel, her sev­enth since she de­buted so spec­tac­u­larly with Af­ter You’d Gone?

Part of the an­swer lies in O’Far­rell’s oeu­vre of course: whilst her nov­els are gen­er­ally fe­male-fo­cused and emo­tion­ally in­volv­ing, she has told a dif­fer­ent story with each one, and in a dif­fer­ent way. She is not a one-trick pony who sim­ply re-tells that ini­tial best­seller over and over again. On the con­trary, she has through­out her ca­reer shown a will­ing­ness to ex­per­i­ment with form that many com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful writ­ers wouldn’t dare to do, as well as a will­ing­ness to ex­plore dif­fi­cult sub­ject mat­ter.

If any­thing con­nects her nov­els it’s loss of some kind, the loss of a child, a par­ent, a lover, and in this re­spect This Must Be The Place is on fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory. But here O’Far­rell con­founds our ex­pec­ta­tions again. A novel with mul­ti­ple nar­ra­tors, this many-stranded story is held to­gether by the fig­ure of Daniel O’Sul­li­van, twice-mar­ried, haunted by the dis­as­trous out­come of one par­tic­u­lar past re­la­tion­ship and strug­gling, and fail­ing, to main­tain his cur­rent one. He is an Amer­i­can liv­ing in an iso­lated part of Done­gal, a lin­guis­tics ex­pert mar­ried to a woman who was once a film star.

The in­con­gru­ous parts of his life are played out in the very first scene, when he de­scribes his wife, Claudette, shoot­ing at a man she sus­pects is a pa­parazzi. Claudette ran away from her film star life many years pre­vi­ously, fak­ing her own death and that of her son. Daniel met her by ac­ci­dent when look­ing for his Ir­ish grand­fa­ther’s re­mains; he helped her son, Ari, with his stut­ter and fell in love with this enig­matic, elu­sive woman. Years later, with two chil­dren of their own, he is thrown a curve ball when he hears about a past girl­friend, Ni­cola, a fem­i­nist ac­tivist from his stu­dent days, and about her early and un­ex­pected death. Did he cause her demise, he won­ders, and off he sets, try­ing to put the pieces of the past to­gether, to the detri­ment of his mar­riage.

O’Far­rell is ex­cel­lent on this kind of theme, the blast from the past that oc­curs to up­set all that seems set­tled and com­fort­able, and the sce­nario here never feels con­trived. But she doesn’t rest with Daniel’s point of view; we hear from Claudette her­self, her son Ari, as well as the chil­dren from Daniel’s first mar­riage, Niall and Phoebe. Dar­ingly, O’Far­rell tells us early on that Phoebe will die - this kind of nar­ra­tive pre-empt­ing is a sign that plot sus­pense will not drive this story, but char­ac­ter in­ter­ac­tion, re­la­tion­ships and how they make us feel and act, are its main driv­ing forces.

In that re­spect, the en­sem­ble feel of the novel can leave a sense of un­sus­tain­abil­ity. O’Far­rell’s strength lies in the im­me­di­ate rap­port her char­ac­ter have with the reader, and even when she in­tro­duces new char­ac­ters to­wards the end of the novel, she man­ages to make us feel as though we know them well. This is not an easy thing to achieve, but O’Far­rell makes it look easy, nat­u­ral, has us ac­cept­ing them as if they’d al­ways been there. She does this with all her char­ac­ters, as we hear also from Claudette’s ex, from Ni­cola and her mu­tual friend with Daniel, Todd; we hear from Daniel’s mother, from Claudette’s brother, Lu­cas, and from Lu­cas’ wife who’s been try­ing and fail­ing to have a child. Never does this huge cast feel un­man­age­able; never does the novel feel crowded.

But it does mean that the glimpses we have of them, when they tell the story from their own view­points, tend to high­light the emo­tional and the re­la­tion­ship as­pect of their lives, and that can have a one-di­men­sional ef­fect. You find your­self won­der­ing be­yond their emo­tional dra­mas, what are their jobs ex­actly? What an­chors them? How do they man­age money-wise?

The struc­ture of this novel re­sem­bles more closely con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can fiction-writ­ing, and per­haps the choice of a New Yorker as her main pro­tag­o­nist re­flects the moun­tain left for O’Far­rell to climb: smash­ing the US mar­ket the way she has done in the UK and Europe. There’s no rea­son why she can’t do that with this story, given its epic sweep, trav­el­ling from North­ern Ire­land to New York, to Swe­den and Bo­livia, London and China, and its fam­ily ten­ta­cles stretch­ing across the globe. The US mar­ket likes an ex­pan­sive story with dys­func­tional, messy, mid­dle-class fam­i­lies strug­gling to hold it all to­gether.

O’Far­rell’s blend of the epic and the in­ti­mate may not be with­out its faults, lack­ing an edge or depth that makes such work a truly tricky or dif­fi­cult read. She is never less than smooth and seam­less. But this lat­est work is the kind of su­pe­rior qual­ity that she al­ways pro­vides and that the high-end com­mer­cial mar­ket loves. So O’Far­rell need surely have few wor­ries over the suc­cess of this lat­est novel, transat­lantic or other­wise. The stars, thanks to hard work, good in­stincts and no small amount of tal­ent, are in happy align­ment once more.

Mag­gie O’Far­rell ‘has shown a will­ing­ness to ex­per­i­ment with form that many com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful writ­ers wouldn’t dare to do’

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