Book review - Bromance built on shared guilty secret
Darragh McManus on Booker-shortlisted AD Miller's new novel about friendship
The Faithful Couple, its blurb confirms, isn't the story of a romance, as you might expect. It's about a friendship between two Englishmen, Adam and Neil, who first meet while gadding about California in 1993. (The title, with its obvious multiple layers of meaning, refers to a giant tree they encounter, which is actually two trees that have fused together over long years.)
Adam is clearly from an upper-middle-class background; though a decent guy, he carries that easy, semi-conscious droit de seigneur, the sense that life will be good to him, that this is right and natural. Neil's background straddles working-class and lower-middle - his dad runs a struggling stationery shop - and he's more pessimistic, edgy, hang-dog, even a bit chippy.
But they strike up a rapport and start hanging out. On a group hiking trip into the world-famous Yosemite National Park, Neil sleeps with an American girl called Rose. The problem is, she's only 15; even worse, Adam knew this the night before, but for various complicated reasons didn't say anything (and doesn't, until years later).
They escape a potential prison sentence, return to England and soon reignite their friendship - a development which feels both surprising and inevitable. From there AD Miller's novel leaps forward a few years in each chapter, charting Adam and Neil's lives, sometimes apart but mostly as they intertwine. Professional successes and failures, relationships that crash and burn (mostly Neil's), Adam's marriage to Claire and their children, the way London has changed over the years. . . it's all in there. And running throughout, like a seam of unbreakable metal in a lump of rock, is that friendship.
Journalist and author Miller - Booker shortlisted for Snowdrops in 2011 - is a really fine writer, and this is a really fine book. It reminded me in different parts of Nick Hornby, David Nicholls, Douglas Coupland and last year's Glenn Patterson novel, The Rest Just Follows.
But Miller, with all due respect to those mentioned, is a better writer. His prose is lovely: contemplative, controlled, elegant. One particularly tremendous scene, where Neil stews over a row with Adam and charts a geographic, sociocultural and philosophical path through the city of London, is a tour de force of fictional prose.
He has an unerring eye for the quirks and details of what makes up everyday life: the sights and sounds, random memories, the way chance often leads us down unexpected paths, and most importantly, the dynamics of romance and parenthood. (Anyone with small children will relate to Adam's often comical struggles with his two ankle-biters.)
The themes of the book, I think, are two. First, guilt: what they did to Rose (both men blame themselves equally) gnaws away at their souls and their relationship, though both are often in denial about elements of this. And second, friendship: how it is, in some strange ways, the most profound, challenging, satisfying and - for good or ill - inescapable bond we can form.
Darragh McManus' Young Adult novel, Shiver the Whole Night Through, is out now
The Faithful Couple
Little Brown, hdbk, 280pp, €24.50
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350