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