The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
T.S Eliot: Burnt Norton from Four Quartets
The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett is a cleverly constructed book about passages not taken and opportunities missed. Everyone has those What If questions. What if you had taken decision A instead of B; what if you had returned that phone call; what if you’d taken that gap year instead of going straight to university? How would your life have been different? Laura Barnett explores these questions and the idea of chance, fate and regret through two characters who are placed into three very different story lines.
Eva Edelstein and Jim Taylor are university students at Cambridge in 1958. In version one, she has a puncture on her way to a supervision about her essay on T S Eliot’s Four Quartets. Second year law student Jim stops to help her. Eva abandons the lecture, and her current boyfriend, the charismatic aspiring actor David Katz and marries Jim. They start their life together in a ramshackle cottage, Eva aspiring to be a writer and Jim a painter.
In version two, Eva misses the nail, misses a meeting with Jim and goes on to marry David though within days questions if this was the right decision. The relationship deteriorates as David’s acting career takes off. Meanwhile Jim continues with his law studies, feeling trapped in a career he doesn’t want.
In version three, Eva and Jim enjoy a brief relationship but when she discovers she is carrying David’s child, she does ‘the right thing’ and ends up in a loveless marriage. Jim abandons his pursuit of law to become a respected painter and a father. He never stops yearning for Eva even though deep down he believes it may be too late for them:
He should never have tried to go back in time, to the moment when he and Eva had their entire lives before them. He has gone against the natural law of things; the law that says you get one chance at happiness, with one person, and if it falls apart, you do not get that chance again.
Their lives of these couples unfold across half a century full of the stuff upon which normal lives are built. Children are born; relatives die. Success comes for some of the versions of Eva and Jim, disappointment and regret for others. Laura Barnett chooses to tell the story using the original approach of one chapter dedicated to each version at the same point in time. It’s confusing at first to find the narrative switching constantly between each set of characters and I found I needed to make a few notes about each permutation. After a while however I found I could easily disregard the minutiae and just let the story itself take control, drawing me in ever closer with each new episode.
Each story is interesting in its own right but it’s the way they come together that makes this book rather special. Barnett isn’t saying that one version is any better than the others; just that there are several different (often rocky) paths to achieve happiness.
The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett was published in the UK in June 2015 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (part of the Orion Publishing group).
The author is a writer, journalist and theatre critic. She has worked at The Guardian and the Daily Telegraph, and is now a freelance arts journalist and features writer. The Versions of Us is her debut novel.
In this You Tube video Laura Barnett explains how she managed to keep track of her characters through the writing of her novel
15 thoughts on “The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett”
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I don’t know… I like one story, not multiple/variations! It definitely sounds interesting, but I’m just curious, and don’t think I would actually take the time to read it. Nice review though!
its not to everyone’s taste but then wouldn’t it be dull if we all agreed
This is one of those books that I’ve wanted to read ever since it was published, sadly I still don’t have a copy but I will get one – I like that all the versions are appealing which is the danger with this type of book I would think. Great review and thank you for keeping it on my radar.
I thought this book would have got more attention than it seems to have had so far. I got my version from the library so avoiding adding to the TBR
I’m afraid I got half way through this and realised that I wasn’t interested enough in the characters to read one version of their story let alone three. I gave it what is possibly my worst judgement when I called it ‘clever’. Oh well, it would be a dull world if we all liked the same thing.
so is ‘clever’ a coded word for ‘unappealing”? Just asking so I will keep an eye open for the clue in future reviews
Which was the character in ‘Alice’ who used words to mean whatever they wanted at the time? I suspect I’m being rather like them. In this instance ‘clever’ means more concerned with the impression she is making than with the substance. Tomorrow I may use it to mean something entirely other. 😉
I love the sound of this book! Adding it to the list.
Hope it justifies its space on your bookshelf when you do get it Naomi
This book sounds so tempting that I am adding it to my list….I do love those what if questions and the puzzling over the various versions of ourselves we could have created….if only. It is fun to see how those versions could play out. Thanks for sharing.
it must have taken a lot of careful planning by the author to keep those different versions straight
I enjoyed this much more than I was expecting when I read the blurb. Such an elegantly constructed novel and, you’re right, once you relax into Barnett’s narrative style, her story takes over and draws you in.
It certainly was a feat of construction and planning….