Let’s nor split hairs, beat around the bush or dance on the head of a pin here, as if we would, but this is one of the best books I’ve ever read. This being “The Versions of Us” by Laura Barnett.
A triptych of a book that plays with time and reality in three versions of two people’s lives. “Triptych” because one of the two is an artist and in one of the versions he paints a three panelled portrait of the might have beens and realities of their lives. The big differences that decisions taken casually can make, on top of the random chances and major changes that happen in all of our lives anyway. And rather than structure her book in a Parts 1,2 and 3 sequence of whole stories, Laura Barnett instead presents us with triptych on triptychs of short sequences where we follow her two main characters through the three versions of each of their lives at the same time. From their student days to, well I’m not going to tell you the ends of any of the versions. Only that it all gets put together and performed for us like the most complex of symphonies. And that when it was done I put the book down and immediately wrote my sentence about not splitting hairs and this being the best book I’ve ever read, until the next one.
The detailing in the differing versions is particularly well done. For example, a set piece event occurs in each of them and has different Rolling Stones songs playing in the background. Helping the author to paint her differing themes of longing, despair or “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” My devotion to music no doubt helping me notice these, you may well pick up on others in the layering on layerings of the stories. Though in all of the pieces Laura Barnett’s well told stories remain the main things. Stories where as often as not you’ll simply want to rush through her careful details to see what happens next.
So in the rush of having just read this and loved everything about it I recommend it unreservedly. Especially coming as it did so soon after a run of promising novels I’d failed to finish, this one kept me enthralled and thinking for the three or four days it took me to finish. Thinking, because it’s that kind of book. One where I couldn’t do other than pause sometimes in its reading to think about the turns not taken or casually done in my own life. Turns that then changed everything or, where not taken, left shadow versions of what might have been following my real life around and turning up sometimes in dreams. Versions of myself where my beloved daughter didn’t get born, or the ones where I never did take that risky leap out of the housing job, or did but it went all kinds of wrong.
The book also reminded me how important good writing and good stories are for my own more academic work. How for all of the two years I’ve now been unexpectedly back at university I’ve tried to always have a novel on the go. As recreation, rest and relief from the too often not particularly well written sociology I’ve often been required to read. But also as inspirations and encouragements to me to do academic writing better. Especially now, as I approach the serious writing down part of my PhD, I’m coming to think this and other favourite novels are not mere reliefs from academia but the stuff itself of what and how I want to write. Threaded all the way through the empirical research and explaining I’ll do, about how and why people are trying to create better lives in better places, there will need to be good writing and good stories, as if what I’m doing is proper literature. Because real and complex lives, situations and theories will require good writing, I’d say, if I’m seriously expecting anyone other than a few academics to stay interested through whatever I come up with.
So Laura Barnett’s inspirational triptych of a book will stay on my shelf here, along with those by the treasured likes of Kate Atkinson and Charlotte Bronte and will be as useful and often referred to by me in the writing year to come as any of the sociology, philosophy and history volumes next to them. Because good writing matters, after all.