On the penultimate page of A.M. Homes’s novel This Book Will Save Your Life, the protagonist Richard Novak thinks about a story he has been told and wonders:
Was there some larger meaning – was it a parable, an allegory, or just a story?
It’s clearly intended to apply to the novel itself, which is quite one of the strangest things I’ve read in some time. On the one hand, all the events are dealt in a deadpan, somewhat blank prose, so there’s a benevolent straightforwardness to it all. On the other hand, many of the events are highly implausible, and it is only the style which keeps it from seeming either forced or – the dreaded – ‘quirky.’ For example at one point Novak finds himself on the television news helping a movie star to rescue a horse from a subsiding hole in the ground outside his Los Angeles home. Ah, his home:
Above and below, a chain of houses climbs the canyon wall: a social chain, an economic chain, a food chain. The goal is to be on top, king of the hill – to win. Each person looks down on the next, thinking they somehow have it better, but there is always someone else either pressing up from below or looking down from above. There is no way to win.
And it must be this realisation which has jolted Novak’s body out of its routine, and broken him away from his controlled, orderly and efficient life as a market trader (“placing his bets, going long and short, seeing how far up or down he can go, riding an invisible electronic wave”) to fill him with an excruciating physical pain. This is how the novel begins: with the sudden crushing pain – never diagnosed – which sends Novak to the emergency room and out into the world, into the mess and fuss of humanity, for the first time in years.
On the way home he breaks his strictly balanced diet to buy donuts, and befriends the shop owner. He talks to a crying woman in the supermarket. He reignites an uneasy relationship with his son. In short, he re-enters the human race.
And this, really, is all that happens. There is a tremendous amount of detail, for the best part of 400 pages, and an awful lot goes on. But it would be perfectly possible to read the book as fundamentally whimsical and inconsequential. Or to view its story of one man’s “dramatic emotional thaw” as superficial and sentimental. And this is how I began thinking of it: me, with my innate tendency to view pretty much anything featuring simple happiness as somehow sentimental. However Homes cleverly avoids these accusations, by the uninflected blankness of the prose and what seems an almost bold and perverse determination to tell a straight story, and so I was forced to look beyond my handy (lazy) dismissal and find a surprisingly moving, heartfelt tale, which is simple without being simplistic.
Its curious mix of the banal and the bizarre reminded me somewhat of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, and even of Haruki Murakami. It’s a bold choice for the Richard & Judy list this year because it will divide opinion, and a wise choice too for that very reason – everyone who reads it, I imagine, will get something different from it.