What to make of this unexpectedly startling novel? Though you may be lured into a false sense of familiarity by mentions in the blurb of Trollopes J and A, and the comfortable middle-class settings (Sussex, Notting Hill), it turns out to be a diatribe against male selfishness, a meditation on approaching death, and an apologia for adultery. And that’s among other things.
Set in the week beginning 6 May 2015 — the day before David Cameron’s unexpected general election triumph — it concerns three marriages well into maturity, each requiring a reappraisal of its sexual politics. Some of this, reading as a middle-aged male nearing 60, as is one of the characters, is close to the bone, if I may so put it.
The defeat of Clegg and Miliband is used to demonstrate one of the characters’ theories that men die twice, first at the end of ascending careers. There is an implicit suggestion that this is analogous to the menopause. Both men and women will find that ‘the long days and nights of unnecessary existence will begin’. Loss of potency, of fecundity, whether in career or body, is a little death.
Nicholson walks a fine line between comedy and drama, and the book is never unenjoyable, although for a male reader the endless man-bashing becomes a little tiresome. The characters tend somewhat to the stereotypical: the men are closed, emotionally immature, self-obsessed and so on, while the women are questioning, open and selfless. But then I suppose a point is being made. There is quite a lot of pontificating in internal monologue.
As the misandry becomes increasingly comical (not entirely purposefully so), it feels as though the demands of melodrama begin to overthrow the moderate inquiring tone in which most of the book is written. Ayckbourn and Iris Murdoch are names that oddly occur in tandem to the reader. The book ends with a grand, Agatha Christie-like coming together of characters and explanations.
Whether this is a brave male feminist attack on the sexual mores of the chattering classes (ageing division) or a pandering to fashionable opinion, and odd as it may seem for a book which is a part of something called ‘The Sussex Trilogy’, than which there can be few titles less threatening, I found this novel more thought-provoking than those of Houellebecq or Amis Jr (but think of what comedy Amis Sr would have made of such a set up). The Way We Live Now indeed.