A thought-provoking meditation

David Nicholls        
Hodder & Stoughton 17.99        

LONGLISTED for the Booker Prize even before it was published, Us is David Nicholls’ fourth novel, and arguably his most entertaining.

As the story begins, Douglas Petersen appears to be suffering the reverse of the conventional male mid-life crisis.

A pedantic biochemist contemplating the imminent departure of his teenage son Albie from the family nest, Douglas is — according to the rules of fiction, at least — a prime candidate to be eyeing up a Maserati and tumbling into an ill-advised affair with a woman half his age.

As it happens, Douglas rather likes bumbling along in his comfortable, suburban existence, and is very much looking forward to ‘growing old and dying together’ with his wife, Connie.

“Douglas,” says Connie, “who in their right mind would look forward to that?”

The truth of it is that, now their son is reared and on his way to university, Connie is thinking of leaving Douglas.

With a typically old-fashioned ‘grand tour’ of Europe’s galleries and museums already planned, Douglas hopes that the family’s final holiday together will reignite old passions for love, art and life itself — but once they get on the road, things very quickly go from bad to worse.

Readers familiar with David Nicholls’ previous novels — Starter for Ten, The Understudy and One Day — will anticipate an acerbic take on romance and love, and they won’t be disappointed. “This is a love story, after all,” Douglas tells us early on.

“Certainly love comes into it.” In fact, it’s three love stories, as Douglas strains to reconnect with Connie in a contemporary storyline while also recounting, in a parallel narrative, how they first met and fell for one another. Between the lines of these stories is lurks another tale, this one of largely unrequited love, as Douglas tells us of his failed attempt to be a proper father to Albie. This is, perhaps, due to his formative experience of a father-son relationship, when he grew up with a stern father, a GP, who ‘issued sympathy with the same reluctance that he prescribed antibiotics.’

Blending a poignant tone with brilliantly timed deadpan humour, Nicholls leads us on a merrily chaotic dance through Paris, Amsterdam, Venice and Madrid that echoes loudly to the anarchic irreverence of Tom Sharpe, especially when the Douglas is offering his philistine opinion on the arts (“Since the time of the Greeks, had anyone ever left a play saying, ‘I just wished it were longer!’”).

His take on the travelogue is refreshing too: “Munich was a strange combination of grandly ceremonial and boisterously beery, like a drunken general ...”.

It’s a hugely enjoyable blend, not least because it quickly becomes obvious that Douglas’s constant stream of pithy one-liners and off-beat observations serve as a kind of manic distraction from the almost unbearable loss that set the tone for the beginning of Douglas and Connie’s marriage.

“Connie and I also had a daughter, Jane,” Douglas tells us, “but she died soon after she was born.”

Us is a novel of the fine lines and tiny gaps that every family will recognise, those between intimacy and claustrophobia, between familiarity and contempt.

Nicholls mines these rich seams and fault-lines for a novel that is by turns heart-breaking and laugh-out-loud funny.

“Shouldn’t art be an escape, a laugh, a comfort, a thrill?” asks a plaintive Douglas as Connie drags him along to yet another depressing foreign movie.

No, says Connie, and the reader is inclined to agree with her — Us is very much an escape, a laugh, a comfort and a thrill, but it is above all a thought-provoking meditation on how very fragile are the ties that bind.


David Nicholls

Hodder & Stoughton, €17.99

Review: Declan Burke


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