Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel This Must be the Place, is a dazzling portrait of broken relationships and secrets from which we can try to run, but never escape. Everyone in this novel seems to be stumbling and struggling along, hoping that at some point they will find what is missing in their life. What’s missing is the place. And that place is home.
Take the central figure of Daniel Sullivan. He’s a US academic who has drifted into life in a remote part of Ireland with his stunning, eccentric wife. Claudette Wells was once the world’s biggest film stars but then vanished from public view when she staged a disappearing act while on holiday, leaving everyone including her film director husband to believe she was dead. Life is complex enough when your wife readily takes pot shots at anyone who comes close to breaching her privacy but Daniel has further complications in his life. He has children living in California that he never sees and a father in Brooklyn that he dislikes intensely. He doesn’t realise however just how fragile his life is until the day a radio program triggers a memory about a former girlfriend he lost touch with twenty years ago. He should be en route to Brooklyn to mark his father’s 90th birthday but the program has unsettled him so instead he sits on a park bench and reflects:
…my life has been a series of elisions, cover-ups, dropped stitches in knitting. To all appearances, I am a husband, a father, a teacher, a citizen, but when tilted towards the light I become a deserter, a sham, a killer, a thief. On the surface I am one thing but underneath I am riddled with holes and caverns, like a limestone landscape.
Its a contemplation which ends in a journey to right the wrongs of his past; a journey that will threaten his career and his sanity and jeopardise his marriage.
It is possible, I think … to see ailing marriages as brains that have undergone a stroke. Certain connections short-circuit, abilities are lost, cognition suffers, a thousand neural pathways close down for ever. Some strokes are massive, seminal, unignorable, others imperceptible. I’m told its perfectly possible to suffer one and not realise it until much later.
Whether he can make his way home again and re-establish his relationship with Charlotte is a question mark that hangs over the latter half of the book.
O’Farrell crosses time zones and continents to construct Daniel and Claudette’s stories through their own eyes and those around them. The children of their various relationships get their turn as narrators, as do her ex husband and personal assistants. Each chapter is told from a different point of view, relating events that occurred either years earlier or years later than the previous chapter. As readers we never know who’s going to appear next to tell their bit of the story. It also means that we see the gulf between how characters think of themselves and how they are perceived by others.
This Must be The Place is also replete with experiments in style. One chapter narrated by Daniel’s eldest son Niall, uses detailed footnotes to expand on his observations; another portrays Claudette’s life as an actress through illustrations from an auction catalogue of memorabilia. It’s a risky strategy but O’Farrell pulls it off with aplomb, creating an exceptional novel that has now supplanted The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox as my favourite O’Farrell novel. Surely This Must be The Place is a strong contender for some literary prizes?
This Must Be The Place by Maggie O’Farrell is published in the UK by Tinder Press. It’s her seventh novel. There’s a good colour piece about her published by The Independent newspaper – see it here
This is book #1 from my #20booksofsummer list