O’Farrell blends epic and intimate
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’