The Versions of Us
Weidenfeld & Nicholson
Laura Barnett’s debut novel seems destined to top the bestseller lists, provided that it is not superseded by Harper Lee’s posthumous sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird.
What might otherwise be a relatively standard university to grave love story is taken into a different literary arena by a clever gimmick.
Rather than merely describe the burgeoning romance between Jim and Eva from Varsity days in the 1950s until old age today, Miss Barnett presents the material in three versions.
Given her experiences as a theatre critic, it is possible that the idea was influenced by Nick Payne’s Constellations or any number of works by JB Priestley particularly The Time Plays. Then again, fans of science fiction will be even more familiar with the concept.
In the first three scenes, the pair meet following a replicated, dog-induced bicycling accident when law student Jim becomes a downmarket Prince Charming to rescue the more literary Eva.
For the next 400 pages, three novellas run hand-in-hand showing how a tiny difference (the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings) can change lives for three generations.
None of the stories is exceptional so it is the intertwining that needs to make the difference. On one level, it does exactly that since readers are able to understand the leading characters by seeing their behaviour in three different lives.
The most likely story, in which Eva and Jim marry, does not quite go according to plan. However, far more entertaining are the two alternative versions where their paths seem destined to keep them apart forever but divergences regularly occur to great dramatic effect.
The other attraction of the book is its depiction of arty folk. When Eva and Jim meet, following her experiences in the University drama group, she is already dating a narcissistic Jewish actor destined to become one of the leading performers of his generation but a dreadful husband.
Jim might be heading towards the legal profession but his dream is to become an artist, only thwarted by the kind of mother who might generously be described as sensitive, although neurotic or just plain mad would be more accurate.
Finally, Eva who is the novel’s main focus, might be a typical stay-at-home housewife but also has it in her to become a writer, particularly in the version where she marries a fellow journalist who in adversity becomes the source of a bestseller.
Readers will have different experiences with The Versions of Us but many will find the trisection of the plot confusing. In particular, rather than running the versions in straight sequence, quite often there will be a long period without a Version 1 chapter, while the others move along apace.
One might almost get to the stage of writing notes to recall what is happening in which version. Alternatively, it might be easier to let the stories flow and regard the purpose of this volume as a triptych that provides detailed character studies of Bohemians in the second half of the last century and more recently.
Whichever way it is taken, The Versions of Us is likely to be a bestselling book that could launch the career of Laura Barnett as a highly popular novelist.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher