“Imagine carrying a glass, full to the brim, around for thirty-six weeks without spilling a drop. Caution, care, a contrived and fragile serenity.”
This is Douglas Petersen’s description of the second pregnancy of his wife Connie. Having endured the heart-breaking loss of a daughter first time around, it is easy to see how this phrase becomes a touchstone for Peterson’s later life. David Nicholls’ eagerly-awaited novel Us delves into the “contrived and fragile serenity” of the Petersen family: the staid and socially- awkward scientist Douglas; his easy-going, artistic wife Connie and their brooding seventeen year old son Albie.
The story opens with Connie’s middle-of-the night announcement that she thinks their marriage has “run its course.” She wants to leave, she says, but “not any time soon…after the summer. Autumn, the new year?” Stunned and disbelieving, Douglas insists that the family holiday, a Grand Tour of Europe’s major cities by train, must go ahead as planned. He sees it as a way of winning back his wife and improving the father/son bond between himself and Albie. The reality proves very different. Albie takes off with a busker named Cat, and Connie returns to England, forcing Douglas to face up to the fact that his relationship with both is in crisis.
Spanning nine countries and twenty-five years, this fast-paced, moving and often hilarious narrative charts not only the final weeks of a marriage, but also – by means of analeptic passages – the very beginning of the relationship between Douglas and Connie, and the events and crises which have led to the present point of crisis. These parallel strands are cleverly inter-woven – one the recollected timeline of courtship, marriage and parenthood; the other a strained travelogue as the Petersens attempt to enjoy some European culture while glossing over the cracks. At times both narratives intersect, cleverly bringing the past to bear on the present.
In bringing Douglas Petersen to the page, Nicholls shows himself to be a master of characterisation. Something of a Prufrock figure (he actually comments at one point that a T.S.Eliot poem would sound better in “good, plain English.”), Douglas is cautious, obsessed with order and permanently anxious about an imagined ‘wasteland’ of a future.
He is also a mass of contradictions; deprecatingly self aware but often irritatingly dense when it comes to matters of more esoteric nature. Even within the family circle, he is an outsider, taking refuge in a series of achievable personas: the traditional breadwinner, the ‘endlessly capable butler’. Connie even describes his role in her life as “like carrying a large, old-fashioned fire extinguisher around.”
Life, Douglas suggests, is like a loop of celluloid film, endlessly repeating itself until an incision is made. The point at which this imaginary edit takes place serves to launch Douglas into a solitary trajectory around Europe, without any money or even a change of clothing. This is the real, warm heart of the story. Douglas suddenly finds himself in a terrain without maps, guidebooks and carefully-arranged itineraries. In trying to find his errant son, can Douglas, in fact find himself?
Nicholls’ previous novel, One Day, was a runaway success, published in over forty languages and selling in excess of 5 million copies worldwide, before being turned into an equally successful film. With this in mind, a cynic might suggest that Us is a self-conscious affair, sticking to a tried and tested formula. It is very filmic, with a plethora of romantic European settings and instantly recognisable characters. There is a suspicion that this novel might be considered a little too commercial, a shade too lightweight, to do battle with some of the more literary offerings on this year’s Booker longlist. It certainly has “readability”, but its apparent simplicity is deceptive. Us explores complex themes of identity, aging, human potential and family ties against a background of deeper social discourse: the tension between art and science, the importance of creativity and the power of the imagination.
Nicholls is one of this country’s most talented screenwriters, a fact that may lead some to fear that, by necessity, he might be expected to offer a glib, commercial product for the mass market. But in Us, his fourth novel, his writing demonstrates an emotional depth which must surely place him at the forefront of our literary talent.