Lay Me Down by Nicci Cloke: A tale of two lovers and one city

Cover image Given that it’s the time of year when you just want to curl up with an absorbing, untaxing read every so often and forget about the weather, not to mention the ceaseless barrage of pre-electionioneering that’s already battering us here in the UK and will be for months to come, Nicci Cloke’s Lay Me Down seemed an appealing choice. Two things attracted me to it: one was its San Francisco location, the other was its structure, exploring the lives and relationships of two lovers before they got together.

Jack and Elsa meet in a London bar on New Year’s Eve. Within nine months, Jack has been offered his dream job working on a maintenance team on the Golden Gate Bridge and Elsa has thrown up everything to join him. A little rash, you might think, but they’re in love. Jack settles in, becoming part of the team and making friends with Alex but there’s one part of the job he finds hard: all the ironworkers are expected to volunteer to talk potential suicides down from the bridge. It’s tough, and Jack finds it particularly so. Meanwhile Elsa explores the city, riding the buses and seeing the sights only managing to make one friend: her next door neighbour Pearl who often looks after her granddaughter’s children. As Jack’s after work beers with Alex become more frequent and prolonged so Elsa becomes more depressed and lonely. Threaded through the San Francisco narrative are snapshots of  Jack and Elsa’s past, gradually revealing how they’ve come to be the people they are.

Cloke’s descriptions of San Francisco are beguiling. It’s a city I love although it’s a long time since I visited it and she summoned it up beautifully for me. Jack and Elsa are sympathetically portrayed, both battered and bruised in some way or another but hoping for tenderness and a future together. Just one reservation: the structure which was one of its initial attractions proved to be somewhat fragmentary and a little over complicated. Short flashbacks to the years preceding Jack and Elsa’s relationship frequently interrupt the San Francisco sections, breaking the flow a little too much for me. That said it’s an absorbing, entertaining read: one that will see you nicely through a few long dark evenings.

12 thoughts on “Lay Me Down by Nicci Cloke: A tale of two lovers and one city”

  1. It sounds like the modern dilemma, when one person gives up a life to be with another and finds it hard to fit in. It can be simply moving from one town to another or moving countries. How far and from where has Elsa moved to be in San Francisco?

    1. She’s come from London, Claire, and I realise I should have been more explicit about that. Thank you – I’ll insert a swift edit. Cloke explores Elsa’s excitement at exploring her new city followed by her loneliness and isolation very well.

      1. I was thinking that when I read it and then realised in my response that I couldn’t assume there was a significant cultural difference as well. Thanks for the clarification. It reminds me of the theme of a few reviews I’ve seen about the memoir (her 3rd) of a South African woman who moves to the US and how her disconnectedness ultimately lead to the failure of her marriage. Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller.

        Julie from Chalk The Sun said this in her GR review about the breakdown of that particular relationship:

        There is financial stress and a natural lessening of passion as the demands of family take over, but Fuller reaches for a deeper reason. She identifies a profound incompatibility that harkens back to how being raised in Africa, in her very particular family, has shaped her psyche.

        It’s interesting for a character to look within to identify the incompatibility and requires leaving everything behind to even be able to know what that psyche is that we are a part of.

        Well I hope these two learn how to overcome the obstacles, its rare to find the story where it does all pan out well in the end.

        1. I’ll have to leave you to ponder that otherwise I’ll be giving the game away!

          Funny you should mention the Fuller. I read the first once recently, urged on by a friend who loves it. Fuller’s childhood was challenging to say the least and would have an effect on any relationship, I’m sure. Wonderfully vivid writing – well worth seeking out if you’re interested.

    1. I hope you’re enjoying it, Cleo. Such a shame about the somewhat jerky flow. Other than that I enjoyed it very much.

  2. In my ‘real’ life I often coach expat wives who’ve had to move either to their husband’s country or else to a completely new country, and while some of them do enjoy the ‘privileged housewife existence’, some of them are not at all privileged and quite a few of them are depressed, lonely, isolated and resentful. So it’s a subject I have a lot of time for…

    1. She captures that feeling very well, Marina. Elsa can’t work because she’s only there on a tourist visa and she’s very much cast adrift once the excitement fades.

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