Sunday 23 October 2016

Ambitious novel revels in a plurality of form and content

Fiction: This Must Be The Place, Maggie O'Farrell, Tinder Press, type, 352 pages, €16.99

Ruth Gilligan

Published 29/05/2016 | 02:30

Talent: O’Farrell has again proven herself to be a gifted storyteller.
Talent: O’Farrell has again proven herself to be a gifted storyteller.
Maggie O'Farrell's This Must Be The Place.

Maggie O'Farrell's seventh novel opens with a quote from fellow Northern Irish writer Louis MacNeice: "World is crazier and more of it than we think/ Incorrigibly plural." These lines set the tone for the swirling multiplicity of characters, plots, times and locations that make up This Must Be The Place - far more of them, indeed, than we might think.

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We begin with Daniel Sullivan, an Irish-American linguistics professor who is about to leave his marital home in Donegal to journey to the States for a family reunion. However, it is actually Daniel's life up until this point - and the lives of those around him - which provides the "incorrigibly plural" twists and turns of this ambitious and energetic novel.

O'Farrell is probably best known for her 2010 Costa Award-winning book The Hand That First Held Mine. There, as elsewhere, she revealed her rare ability to capture the complex nuances of family dynamics, weaving together stories that travel back and forth across generations.

This Must Be The Place also spans generations, adopting a kaleidoscope of points of view along the way. We hear from Daniel's friends, his wife, his mother, his estranged children; even from more peripheral characters like his wife's former lover or their awkward assistant. We move from rural Ireland to LA to Bolivia to "the car park of a secondary school in an unprepossessing town in the English commuter belt", gaining insights into the film industry, IVF, teenage drug use, chronic skin conditions, infidelity, grief and depression. To complement this wide range of thematic and perspectival shifts, O'Farrell also plays with a variety of forms. Some chapters are framed as interview transcripts; others as phone conversations. One is even formatted as an auction catalogue (complete with photographs) for a series of memorabilia that once belonged to Daniel's actress wife, Claudette.

If this plurality of form and content sounds a little overwhelming, it can sometimes feel that way. Throughout the book, the word "virtuoso" is never far from the reader's mind, and indeed, there is no denying the sheer enormity of O'Farrell's talent. However, toward the end of the novel - when we are still being introduced to brand new characters, still learning the elaborate back story of a woman who enjoys no more than a brief encounter with Daniel and his son - we cannot help but long for the voices and storylines about which we already care.

Then again, perhaps anything more narrow, more restrained, would belie the sprawling reality that is life. And love. For, above all, O'Farrell has managed to convey the elaborate web of relationships which makes up any marriage; the convoluted routes two people traverse and the eclectic baggage they amass before their paths finally, fatefully cross (and, of course, the fun doesn't stop there).

Apart from the domestic realm, O'Farrell's observations on celebrity culture are the most captivating; the initial rush then crush of life in the spotlight. We follow Claudette from aspiring actress to "one of the most speculated-about enigmas of her time", her struggle for autonomy and motherhood leading to some of the novel's strongest sections.

By the end of it all, we are left somewhat exhausted; somewhat dizzy from the quantity of scenarios and situations in which we have been asked to invest. Even Claudette struggles to fathom "all the permutations of people who have lived in the house" - the same house Daniel left behind in the novel's opening chapter. In the final pages, however, we are allowed to slow right down, to savour the culmination of everything that has come before, and to remember just how gifted a storyteller O'Farrell truly is.

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