The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett: The three faces of Eva and Jim

cover imageDespite the uncertainty of the weather here in the UK I seem to have veered off into summer reading territory this week with the previous post on The Sunlit Night and now this one. Laura Barnett’s new novel stands out a mile in the publishing schedules as that precious thing: a strong commercial novel, cleverly put together with an intriguing structure and a cast of nicely rounded characters. It explores that old Sliding Doors idea of the role chance plays in out lives unfolding three different versions of the possible lives led by Eva and Jim who meet – or don’t meet – in Cambridge, aged nineteen.

Eva cycles along the Backs early one morning in 1958. She’s in a tearing hurry, late for a supervision, when she swerves to avoid a small dog. A young man walking in the opposite direction stops to help with the ensuing puncture/sprained ankle/registers her wobble as she collects herself having successfully avoided the dog. From each of these three possibilities, Barnett spins a story with varying degrees of involvement between Eva and Jim. Marriages, children, friends, lovers, work, joy and sorrow – all vary in their permutations throughout the three versions but the connection between Eva and Jim remains a constant in one form or another as we follow them from that morning in 1958 to 2014 when the novel ends with another much more significant event that pulls together all three narratives.

It’s a daring structure for any novel let alone a debut and could easily have turned into a clunky exercise in creative writing but Barnett manages to keep all her plates spinning nicely. The chapters are short, clearly labelled with the version and date which you’ll need to keep track. At first it felt too much like hard work but once you let go of that straining after what was said and who was who in each version’s instalment it becomes thoroughly engrossing, exerting an insistent pull to see what happens next in each interpretation of Eva and Jim’s stories. There are constants threaded through – Jim’s artistic talent, fulfilled or frustrated as is Eva’s writing; Jim’s mother’s bipolarity; overlapping friendships and acquaintances – but other than that it’s the bumpy ride of life and its many side routes that Barnett explores with insight and compassion. The whole concept is beautifully illustrated by Jim’s eponymous triptych which shows small variations on the same theme dismissed by his partner as ‘Like a Spot the Difference’ but for him it’s about ‘the many roads not taken, the many lives not lived’. Those of us who accept the randomness of chance have all had our ‘what if’ moments and I’m sure it must have been explored before in fiction but I can’t think of anything quite like The Versions of Us off the top of my head. Do let me know if any occur to you.

22 thoughts on “The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett: The three faces of Eva and Jim”

  1. I love the sound of this – what a brave structure for a first novel. My partner and I studied English at the same college at Cambridge many years ago, yet somehow managed never to have a conversation (despite the fact that two of our closest friends were in a relationship). Several years after graduating we met by chance in Oxford, and are now getting married next year. Lots of “what ifs”!

    1. What a lovely story! This will be right up your street, then. I was very impressed with the structure. Barnett must have had yellow post-its all over her writing space.

  2. I first heard about this book and its author on, the Periscope view of the writers’ studies, where Laura Barnett was showing us around her office and also talking a bit about her writing process and how she did manage to keep all the storyline plates spinning cleverly. I have my own ‘What if’ moment set in Cambridge (I’m living the version where it didn’t happen now), so it sounds like quite a compelling read to me.

    1. I’ll look that up, Marina. Thanks! I think you’d like this one, then. It’s very skilfully executed but needs a little getting into.

  3. I’ve been seeing this book everywhere! I might have passed it by, but if you like it, Susan, then I will probably give it a go (when the paperback appears, most probably!).

    1. Oh, now I feel the heavy hand of responsibilty upon my shoulders! I hope you like it, Victoria. I suspect it’s Weidenfeld & Nicolson’s great hope for the summer and it deserves to do well.

  4. I picked this up about three weeks ago and stoically put it back due to #TBR20 restraints… Keep seeing such good reviews and love the premise – having had a few pertinent ‘what ifs’ – so kicking myself as now itching to read it… Soon!

    1. I hope you enjoy it when you get there, Poppy. I’ve a feeling it may chime with quite a few readers’ experiences. Good luck with #TBR20!

    1. I’m sure you’re right, but like you, none come to mind. It seems from your review that we’re pretty well agreed on The Versions of Us!

      1. I tried tapping into hubby’s brain as well, but all we came up with was a couple of ‘alternate reality’ Star Trek episodes! Playing with parallel universes is certainly more of a sci-fi thing so maybe that’s where I’ve come across the concept before.

  5. This is exactly the sort of book I love. I really like a novel that challenges the accepted narrative organisation. I shall be looking for a copy tomorrow while I’m out and putting it on a reading group list so that I have to find time to read it. Thank you.

    1. You’re welcome, Alex. It’s all very deftly handled, although it takes a little getting used to the three versions to begin with. I think it would make an excellent books group choice – lots to talk about.

    1. I hope you’re going to report back via your blog, Annabel. I would be interested to hear what she says about the process of writing the book. I’m sure it’ll be a very enjoyable evening.

    1. I’m sure it will be popping up in various airports, and on many beaches and balconies throughout the holiday world, Claire.

  6. I love novels which explore those “what if” moments, so this sounds right up my street. The structure seems clever and interesting, definitely one to add to the to-read list!

    The only novel I can think of which sounds slightly similar is Lionel Shriver’s ‘The Post-Birthday World’ – it has a parallel world-type structure where we see two versions of the protagonist’s life. It’s been a while since I read it, but if I remember rightly, we’re presented with each chapter twice, each with variations.

    1. That sounds like a similar structure, Gemma. Barnett’s alternatives for Eva and Jim vary considerably but she manages to keep each one coherent and true to their characters. Quite an organisational feat!

    1. They were both fully rounded characters in all three incarnations, weren’t they? Glad to hear that you liked it, too.

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