Despite 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.