Thursday 19 September 2019

The First Time Lauren Pailing Died: Sweetly sad study of grief, death and loss set in parallel worlds

Fiction: The First Time Lauren Pailing Died

Alyson Rudd

HQ Books, hardback, 384 pages, €16.99

Quintessential beach read: Alyson Rudd
Quintessential beach read: Alyson Rudd
The First Time Lauren Pailing Died by Alyson Rudd

Tanya Sweeney

What makes a book a good beach read? It's a term that has been used to pejoratively dismiss certain titles, often released in the summer months, as frothy, pulpy and undemanding.

The truth is, however, that a decent beach read should be easy enough to dip in and out of, but also a gripping and engaging companion that lends itself to hours and hours of leisure time.

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This extraordinary, high-concept story is ideal in that regard.

In theory, Alyson Rudd's novel should be hailed as an instant classic, though in the rugby scrum of "summer must-reads", it appears to have gotten somewhat lost in the shuffle. Yet The First Time Lauren Pailing Died is the quintessential beach read: digestible, affable, gripping, and thought-provoking.

From a young age, Lauren sees "sunbeams" of other possible lives, but realises early on that this is a gift, or perhaps even a hindrance, best kept to herself.

At 13, in 1980s suburbia, she dies for the first time in a road accident. It's the first of many "deaths", but as she wakes from a coma in a parallel existence, it is also the first time that Lauren enters into a new life.

Every time Lauren is resurrected, her family loom large in her new life, albeit in different ways.

After she wakes from her first coma, Lauren recognises her mother Vera, although their relationship has clearly changed.

It soon transpires that the people she loves are in every new world, though things subtly shift each time. More often than not, they are getting on with their lives after losing Lauren. Her father Bob remarries in one instance, her parents have another child in another.

This look at life after death becomes one of the book's greatest strengths; a sweetly sad study of death, grief and loss. Rudd has an emotional eloquence that results in some truly touching, tender moments.

It's not every day that a person can witness the impact their (multiple) deaths have on their nearest and dearest, from parents to husbands, but Lauren gets to experience this grief at close range.

The urgent, 'ticking clock' element is provided by a man: Peter Stanning, her father's boss. He's a man about whom Lauren harbours an adolescent obsession.

Stanning shows up in each of Lauren's new lives as the one constant, unchanging figure, but then disappears every time. Lauren edges towards cracking the mystery of who he is with every new parallel world.

No one can fault the book's premise, and it's to Rudd's credit that she has boiled an intricate concept into a clean sequence of events, not to mention the myriad of different lives that is easy enough for the reader to follow.

And yet the reader is somehow likely to also feel Lauren's cloudy disorientation as she attempts to navigate her way through each new life.

Rudd, a sports journalist for The Times in London, clearly has fun with her parallel worlds, too: Britain has never had a female prime minister in one of these worlds, while the USA is headed up by a ferocious and indomitable female president.

However, a great idea on its own does not necessarily a great book make.

Rudd keeps a hand on the rudder of her considerably grand plot, and the various atmospheres of 1970s, 1980s and 1990s Britain are satisfyingly detailed, dense and evocative.

Those with a nose for nostalgia will find much to like in Rudd's clever detailing, in much the same way that David Nicholls' Sweet Sorrow brought back to life the banal magic of 1990s suburbia.

Yet her evident labouring over different atmospheres and worlds come at a slight cost. At times, Rudd's grip on her characters, and on Lauren in particular, tends to slacken. She often falls flat and occasionally rings passive.

And, once the plot finds its sea legs, it encounters a slight issue with pacing midway through the novel. Mercifully, things quicken again in the final furlongs, resulting in a satisfying ending.

Comparisons to Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, David Levithan's Every Day and Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife are perhaps inescapable; after all, Rudd has managed to exact a similar balance of outlandish premise, melancholy and gut-wrenching emotion.

Tonally, Rudd's novel calls to mind the likes of Kate Atkinson or Jojo Moyes. There is a mash-up of various styles and genres, from drama and mystery to paranormal and sci-fi. It all results in a novel without a singular style or even identity. Yet it somehow works.

And when the yarn itself is this tantalisingly good, it really doesn't matter so much.

Summer may well be nearly over, but The First Time Lauren Pailing Died still ranks as one of the season's most companionable and riveting reads. Expect to see a screen adaptation before long.

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