Sunday 19 February 2017

Playing God with Jim and Eva

Fiction: The Versions of Us, Laura Barnett, Wiedenfield & Nicolson, pbk, 401 pages, £12.99

Anne Cunningham

Published 21/06/2015 | 02:30

Stylish: It's hard to believe this is Laura Barnett's first novel
Stylish: It's hard to believe this is Laura Barnett's first novel

The plot (or one version of it at least) in this unusual and intriguing novel begins in 1958 with a young Cambridge student, Eva, swerving on her bike to avoid a dog in the street. She hits a rusty nail and punctures a tyre. Jim - another Cambridge student - witnesses the mishap and rushes to her assistance. And thus begins The Story of Jim and Eva.

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This little accident is quickly followed by another version, where Eva is telling her actor boyfriend David about the dog in the street and the rusty nail. But in this version, although Jim offers to help, Eva declines and rushes off to her lecture.

Eva marries David, a vain and vacuous man, who becomes a very successful actor. While he's away on set, partying wildly with fellow Thespians like Oliver Reed and sleeping with the leading ladies, Eva remains at home to rear their two children in London. Over time, she becomes increasingly distressed.

In another version, Eva marries Jim. She gets a job in a newspaper which will eventually lead to a successful writing career, and Jim secures a place in Slade, quitting his law studies in Cambridge. He, too, will enjoy a prosperous career as a highly respected artist. Then again, Jim never quits Cambridge, never marries Eva, and pursues a career in law while taking care of his mentally ill, widowed mother.

Confused? So was I, several times during these parallel-universe unravellings. But I figure that the reader is meant to suffer some quantum entanglement at times. These lives are so closely woven together, it's impossible not to feel slightly muddled here and there.

It's a ruse - Laura Barnett not only plays with our imaginations, she somehow manages to construct her different "versions" on utterly credible foundations. Who hasn't wondered how their lives might have been if things had been ever-so-slightly different? Who hasn't marvelled at the power of happenstance, serendipity, fate, call it what you will? One small detail can change everything in the trajectory of a human life. And it is this fact which offers the author a fictional chessboard, where she can move her characters anywhere at will - a bit like playing God.

The Versions of Us will of course be compared with the movie Sliding Doors. But apart from the central "what if" factor common to both, this is where the comparison ends. Barnett casts her net over a much wider sea, both in timespan and in her dramatis personae.

She is a stylish writer; so much so, it's hard to believe that this is her first novel. Spanning the entire second half of the 20th century and much of the 21st, this book is evocative and atmospheric.

She lets the decades roll by, with clever allusions to their zeitgeists as they pass. She writes without embellishment, though - this novel is not a descriptive stroll down memory lane. Rather, it is a sigh of longing for what might have been. And another sigh of regret for what simply is.

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