I confess, it was the title of this novel that first attracted me. Facing a long train journey to Scotland, I was browsing in the Manchester Piccadilly branch of W. H. Smith, and I needed something to read. The opening sentence “I decided to enter this world just as my mother got off the bus after an unproductive shopping trip to Ilford”(5) suggested that here was a book that would indeed engage me at least as far as Preston. I find the Manchester Preston part of the west coast line not totally inspiring. In fact, I barely lifted my eyes from the page until I changed trains in Edinburgh, and it was only the crowded—people were standing in the aisles—condition of the Scot Rail train and the gregarious nature of some newly met travelling companions on their way home to Dundee that prevented me from finishing the book immediately. It is a further testament to the novel that I brought it home with me. Often, my “travel books” are left behind.
I enjoyed this novel. It fulfilled the promise of its opening sentence in the way it engaged me, but it wasn’t exactly the book that I expected. I was surprised by some of the turns the novel took. I was expecting one kind of story and instead was given another. That opening sentence with its echoes of Tristram Shandy led me to anticipate something light-heartedly superficial. What the novel actually delivers is something quite different, and I suspect that my reaction is intentional on Winman’s part. She puts the reader in the position of the narrator Elly who must navigate a world where “things happen. To everyone. No one escapes” (315).
Beginning with Elly’s birth in1968 and ending in 2001, the novel is divided into two parts. Part One follows Elly and her brother, Joe, through childhood; Part Two covers their young adulthood. Ranging among settings as apparently diverse as suburban Essex, Cornwall, and New York, the novel has a broad scope as it follows Elly and Joe and their relationships with their friends Charlie and Jenny Penny. Winman’s evocation of the times and places she writes about is sensitive and believable. Her characters are sometimes whimsical, eccentric, perhaps a little overdrawn at times, but not incredible, and some of their apparent eccentricity lies perhaps not so much within the characters themselves but in the young Elly’s perception of them.
At the core of the novel is how we respond to random inhumanity and disaster. Not long after her birth, Elly’s maternal grandparents are killed in a freak accident, their deaths leaving Elly’s mother “grief-stricken for the whole of [Elly’s]. . .second year and well into . . .[her] third” (6). The work ends not long after the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Grief and guilt permeate the novel and yet the work is in no way depressing. Rather, it is a testament to optimism, human resilience, and the revivifying force of love.
It is unsurprising given the novel’s title that the reader finds herself thinking somewhat theologically in regard to the work. While I would not say that it is in any way an overtly Christian work, I would say that its conclusions do suggest that faith is indeed both transformative and redemptive. Perhaps the words of Arthur, the elderly eccentric who for a while tutors Elly and who becomes a fixture in her family’s life, sum it up best:
“Do I believe in an old man in the clouds with a white beard judging us mortals with a moral code from one to ten? . . I do not . . . .Do I believe in a mystery; the unexplained phenomenon that is life itself? The greater something that illuminates inconsequences in our lives; that gives us something to strive for as well as the humility to brush ourselves down and start all over again? Then, yes, I do. It is the source of art, of beauty, of love, and proffers the ultimate goodness to mankind. That to me is god. That to me is life.” (142).