Review: This Must Be The Place, Maggie O'Farrell
This Must Be the Place
Although we're forever being told to live in the present, it's all too easy to dwell on the "if onlys" and "what ifs" – indeed there's a whole Sliding Doors style of fiction devoted to it.
In her seventh novel, though, Maggie O'Farrell dwells instead on the key moments which make up a life or which bind several lives together – focusing on how the doors are sliding, rather than who's on which side as they close.
Rather than concentrating on possibilities and potential, she instead slowly unravels the complex marriage of US linguist Daniel Sullivan to his reclusive film-star wife Claudette by untangling, chapter by chapter, their relationships with other friends, family, ex-partners and a host of sub-characters.
O'Farrell launches into this exceptionally skilful narrative with a quote from poet Louis MacNeice's "Snow": "World is crazier and more of it than we think,/ Incorrigibly plural" and goes on to display exactly how lives can seem both random and yet be highlighted by definitive moments by giving each chapter a different voice, perspective or even style.
One chapter is peppered with childish footnotes, another retells Claudette's film career via an auction catalogue, undercutting fame by poignantly dividing it into objects, lots and brief descriptive paragraphs.
Through each chapter, the reader is urged to think – as the title suggests – "ah, this must be the place where it all makes sense", only for our desire to find that hardened, incorrigible solution to come undone as we're shown yet another viewpoint or discover another misdirection.
As ever with O'Farrell, she handles the intimate details of relationships with a deft eye and gentle pen. Her characters are bold and bright, and the story-telling adventurous and surprising.
At the centre of the story, Daniel and Claudette display realistic levels of both dysfunction and tenderness – but even the slightest member of This Must Be The Place's supporting cast has every wrinkle and nuance inked in. And this is what gives the novel its power: as each momentous decision is portrayed, we understand the immediate motivation while gradually moving towards a surprising conclusion.
O'Farrell covers an incredible range of topics which could impact a life: from love at first sight, to adoption, abortion and unsent letters to snippets of a radio show heard on a crackly radio – even chronic eczema and speech impediments.
But by skipping around geographically and with regards to time (Donegal, 2010; Brooklyn, 1944; Sweden, 2014; Cumbria, 1995; Bolivia, 2015…) we're led to see all those characters and key moments as part of a great plurality – a puzzle of lives we can come to understand only by studying the very method we're using to solve it.