He’s got a winning formula, this writer, and he’s sticking to it. Set the action over seven days, in and around the Sussex town of Lewes, with occasional day trips to London; write about what you know (Sussex, script-writing, being 54, long marriages, worrying about your post-university children as well as your aged parents with Alzheimer’s, career anxiety, dinner-party anxiety); keep the chapters short (never more than ten pages) and avoid slabs of prose, so the pages are broken up into highly readable short paragraphs and dialogue; write in the present tense; and, within each chapter, keep a strict observance of the Unity of Person, so that the reader steps inside the mind of one character and sees the world solely through his or her eyes.
Done well, this kind of thing can be delicious to read. And William Nicholson does it compellingly and brilliantly. How does he make you care so much? Why do you give a fig whether Alan can stop the rabbits from finding their way into his garden, or whether his wife will buy a saddle of lamb rather than a leg of lamb for Saturday’s dinner party? It’s his use of third-person interior monologue. One by one, as they muse on trivial and profound matters, his characters strip themselves bare, down to their deepest anxieties and fears.
As you read, you feel a deep compassion and you also see yourself. Here’s the freelancer waiting in an office reception, having arrived punctually for a meeting with someone important:
Unsummoned, waiting in the lobby, he looks about him with a half smile, to indicate that something quite other than the life of the lobby is occupying his mind, and that the little he does take in he finds gently amusing.
Spot-on about the way we disguise our frail self-esteem, and one of a thousand examples of Nicholson’s imaginative empathy.
You step inside the mind of each character — the young, insecure female conservation officer, the scriptwriter past the peak of his career, the deluded unloved husband who’s planning a great change of life in his shed at the bottom of the garden, the too-nice computer-mender with whom the conservation officer is not quite in love, the unemployed boy from the
council estate who steals a ring so he can propose to his girlfriend, the pathetic old embittered grandmother who can no longer do up her own buttons — and you’re totally sucked into their consciousness.
The chapter breaks off; you’re back inside one of the other characters, glad to be there again; you live his or her brief spell of anguish; and then, on you go to the next one. Their stories intertwine. Thus, you turn the pages, addicted.
The plot is set unashamedly in the South East in 2010, and this makes me wonder whether the book will date quickly. The set-piece Buckingham Palace garden party is so up-to-the-minute and descriptive that it almost counts as journalism, and it’s one of the few weak patches of the book. But even if the gadgetry, hat fashions and train times change, the anguish is surely eternal. When the old biddy, having sacked her detested carer, finds her guinea pig dead in its hutch, and calls ‘Guinea, Guinea’ to it, I cried. I’d been her, you see. Nicholson makes you be these people, and you see what it’s like.