It's awfully nice of publishers to send me books to review, especially as I'm rather picky and quite often don't actually review them. But I picked up Sarah Butler's debut novel, read a page or two and was hooked enough to whizz through the rest in record time.
This is the story of Alice. In her late twenties, she has been travelling in the far east, partly to recover from a broken relationship, partly because she has never felt totally settled or accepted at home with her family. But she has come back to London because her father is dying of cancer, and she is trying to cope with the inevitable emotional turmoil, not helped a great deal by her two much older sisters, who have their own issues to deal with.
It's also the story of middle-aged Daniel, who is homeless. An art-school dropout who has never settled to a job or a home, he has for many years been wandering the London streets hoping some day to be reunited with the daughter he has never seen.
Switching back and forth between the narrative voices of these two characters, the novel tells of their separate lives and their gradual coming together. This could all have been rather corny and predictable, but I can assure you that it isn't. There are many rather fascinating elements in the story -- in particular, perhaps, the fact that Daniel has synesthesia, or more properly "grapheme → color synesthesia", though it's never named as such in the novel -- he sees letters of the alphabet as individual colours. He hopes his daughter may have inherited the condition, in which case she may be able to read the gifts he leaves outside her door -- found objects of the colours that spell her name, carefully fashioned into tiny works of art.
I found the novel pretty unputdownable, and stayed up late finishing it almost in one gulp. Of course you long to know what the outcome is going to be and hope for a happy ending, but I cannot possibly tell you any of this. I thought Daniel and his life were extremely well evoked. I've had some experience fairly recently of working with homeless people in Oxford, and that makes you realise what a lot of sad stories there are behind those rather daunting facades. The novel is beautifully written, though I sometimes found it a little bit too crafted, if that's the right word. Each chapter is prefaced by a list of ten items -- for Alice, for instance, 'Ten things I will say to my father', 'Ten things I know about my mother', and for Daniel, 'Ten ways othe people might describe me', 'Ten things I've found that spell your name'. Clever stuff, and a good way of moving the plot forward without the need for too much explanation and back story, but it slightly got on my nerves after a while. I was also less enamoured of Alice than I'd like to have been, and wanted to tell her to pull herself together at times, though of course her life has been blighted somewhat by the early death of her mother and the fact that her father and sisters have a secret that they refuse to share with her. And the title made me ponder a bit -- Learnt or Learned? I googled it and gathered that though they are interchangeable in the UK, Americans prefer the ed form of verbs.
Well, I said I was picky, didn't I, and I certainly wouldn't want to put you off what is an extremely impressive first novel. I stayed awake even after I'd finished the final chapter, thinking about the implications for the futures of the two characters, and that's always a good sign.