This years Man Booker prize long list proved two things: that last years embrace of female writers was a bit of a fluke and that the judges were going to extremes to prove that they were fans of more popular literature. Or at least this felt like the most likely explanation for the inclusion of David Nicholls’ Us. Don’t get me wrong, after one false start, I liked One Day as much as the next person. However, Nicholls’ books aren’t necessarily prize worthy; they’re nice. A term that, in regards to literary works, takes on a sickeningly patronising tone most often applied to works enjoying unprecedented sales success. Then again, I have been known to be over critical so I thought I’d give his new, Booker prize longlisted novel a chance…. plus it was on offer at the time.
In Us, David Nicholls explores marriage, family and the sudden derailment of everything you had planned for the future. Douglas Petersen finds his whole life turned upside down when his wife, Connie, suddenly announces that she wants to leave him once their son leaves for university. Having already planned a family tour of Europe, the couple make the inexplicable decision to continue as if everything as normal and set off on their trip regardless. Unsure of what the future holds for him, Douglas embraces the trips with thoughts of reconciliation on his mind. With the addition of tension between father and son, the Petersen’s are on a bumpy road of familial discontent. As this is your typical David Nicholl’s novel, the couple are riddled with fucking obvious and, in a real world situation, deal-breaking differences. With the constant flashbacks to the early stages of their relationship, it’s nearly impossible to see how the pair ever made it to twenty plus years. He is the straight-laced, fuddy-duddy scientist and she the fun-loving, flighty artist. His past full of study and early nights; hers of sex, drugs and oil paints.
It took Nicholl’s five years to release his follow-up to the mega popular One Day. His returns is a travel narrative littered with comic moments, drama and enough constant sentimentality to keep any return readers happy. Also willing to embrace the darker side of relationships, Us is packed with drama aplenty. There’s so much angst flying around the pages that there are times when it feels like we’re in the novelisation of a fucking soap opera. Although, you’ve got to give Nicholls props for his relentless disregard for the ‘happily ever after’ myth. Regardless of my overall opinion of One DayI did applaud the author’s decision to end on a such a sad note. In fact, I think that I’d have been more pissed off had the novel ended happily. Us plays with its readers by forcing them to watch as the narrator is constantly moving towards and away from the dark abyss that threatens to engulf his troubled marriage.
Us is an incredibly readable novels and there is no doubt that Nicholls is an accomplished writer. However, throughout my reading I couldn’t quite understand why the fuck it deserved to make the longlist. It’s all quite lovely but lovely doesn’t really count for much in this game. Everything just feels quite safe and very easy. There is a simplicity to Nicholl’s writing and it feels as though the desire to keep things simple has leaked out into the novel as a whole. There is nothing too exciting to take from the narrative. The main characters are well-written but just seem frustratingly simplistic and clichéd. Everything is very much ‘by the book’ and nothing really comes as a surprise. Nicholl’s also falls foul of the overdone troubled father/son plot which fills itself with supposed psychological reasoning but is all a bit dull. The final revelation about Albie’s distance and anger is just fucking lazy.
Just like the novel’s structure: something that only gets more annoying as time goes by. One Day stuck out most clearly because of its interesting and clever structure. A narrative that focuses on a single day in two people’s lives was a neat and clever way of showing time passing. Us lacks all of One Day’s structural excitement and instead just sporadically jumps back and forth between the family’s holiday and the history of Connie and Douglas’ relationship. There are times when the changes come at welcome points but, as the novel moves on, the flashbacks just become more frustrating and just drag out the inevitable. A feeling that is strengthened by the needless sidelines and tangents concerning modern life in Britain that feel out of place at times. The section where Douglas laments his son’s lack of interest in his war-hero great-grandfather has a whiff of desperation about it: a writer endlessly trying to prove that he is much more than the King of the Rom-Com.
Of course, I don’t want to suggest that Nicholl’s is the literary Richard Curtis, of course. He is an interesting writer and Us is a perfectly pleasant read. There is a lot of interesting detail about Europe and the cultural environment that the Petersen’s are determined to immerse themselves in. There is a certain amount of joy in joining the artistically challenged Douglas attempt to impress his wife and son with his responses to famous pieces. Us doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor One Day but it certainly isn’t something you should ignore. There is a sense that Nicholls’ writing has matured and his subject matter is relatable: something the all-encompassing title is keen to reiterate. There is a lot to enjoy within the narrative but you can’t shake the feeling that it’s all that little bit too safe and trite. Certainly not outstanding enough to warrant its placement on the longlist but not to pronounce it as completely avoidable.