Oh, what a good book. What a really great read. This is without a shadow of a doubt going to be one of my books of the year.
I have just put the novel down, and a thousand thoughts are spinning round in my head. Linked to the story, linked to my own little world, linked to the world in general. The last thing I would want to do is put anyone off choosing to read this book, but you do need to know that it’s not all plain sailing, and it’s certainly not packed with extraordinary events. It’s most definitely dispiriting by moments and it’s over 600 pages long, so in parts it can feel a bit relentless. But this is exactly, I think, what Matthew Thomas wanted to accomplish, and he achieves his aim perfectly.
While it could be said that the nub of the story revolves around Ed and what happens to him during the course of the book, the main thrust focuses principally around the central character Eileen and what makes her tick: yearning to escape a troubled childhood, where she is pushed too soon into an early maturity, her clear aim in life is one of determined survival, and her upwardly mobile aspirations are both tangible and in fact wholly understandable. Her character is not necessarily the most likeable, in fact at times her actions leave the reader cold, but by golly is Eileen a fighter. We stand side by side with her as she races after that elusive American Dream; we cringe – but with feeling – as she deliberately cruises for a bruising by viewing houses that she knows full well are way over the family budget, for instance, and we get a very strong sense of her and our own foreboding as the pages and the years of this ‘normal’ household move forward and things begin to turn inexorably.
Overall, the author’s tone is rarely sympathetic; in fact it is unflinching, hardened and matter-of-fact at times, but it’s also heartbreaking and it’s a slice of life that often made me think back to Williams’s “Stoner”: there is a familiarity in the recounting of not very extraordinary lives which does somehow render the tale all the more out of the ordinary. It’s real people getting some things right and also making glorious cock-ups, but generally it’s about human beings just giving it their best shot and living life as best they can with those rolled dice. The relationships both Eileen and her husband have with son Connell is also beautifully portrayed over time – from the all-encompassing desire for him to have a better start in life and the difficulties the three face during his adolescent years, to the marvellous depiction of him then growing and developing into adulthood and leading the story towards a conclusion of sorts.
I’m with Joshua Ferris’s appraisal :
“The mind is a mystery no less than the heart. In “We Are Not Ourselves”, Matthew Thomas has written a masterwork on both, as well as an anatomy of the American middle class in the 20th Century. It’s all here: how we live, how we love, how we die, how we carry on. And Thomas does it with the epic sweep and small pleasures of the very best fiction. It’s humbling and heartening to read a book this good.”
As I say, am sure this book is not necessarily a crowd-pleaser, but it is astonishingly beautiful and extremely moving and written from the heart. You can’t ask for much more than that. This one was apparently ten years in the making, which seems like a heck of a gestation period, but you can feel the ongoing deliberation given to the structure and the outline of the story. Tackling head on the modern malady that has so many of us trembling in our seats, young father of twins Matthew Thomas writes about his own personal closeness to early onset Alzheimer’s and his decision to live with the shadow of it looming large in this measured, heartfelt article in Time. “We Are Not Ourselves” may not have won any of these major book prizes, although it has been shortlisted here and there and was named one of the New York Times’s 100 Notable Books of 2014, but I truly believe it is a little (large) masterpiece and a book that’s going to resonate well beyond the here and now. It has instantly become –
A FAVOURITE BOOK. Rating : 10/10