Those of us who love David Nicholls’s work feel a sense of apprehension every time he announces a new project: can it possibly be as good as his last? And thankfully, we can all rest easy, it really can. We adored the grown up melancholy as well as the set-piece hilarity of his previous, Booker-longlisted novel, Us, about a middle-aged couple in crisis. And his screenplay for the television version of Edward St Aubyn’s electric series of Patrick Melrose novels remains one of the best things we’ve seen on television.
In his latest novel, Sweet Sorrow, he returns to first love, the subject of his smash hit bestseller One Day. Our hero is Charlie Lewis who has just finished his GCSEs in a small Sussex town in the summer of 1997. In describing the town, Nicholls recalls Tracey Thorn writing about her adolescence in her memoir Another Planet and how one’s hometown can seem a metaphor for a life where nothing materialises. As Charlie says; “it was hard to feel lyrical or sentimental about the reservoir, the precinct, the scrappy woods where porn yellowed beneath the brambles.”
Nicholls again reveals his talent for writing interestingly about unremarkable protagonists. Charlie Lewis evidently shares some DNA with Douglas Petersen, the narrator of Us, he even “rearranged my own tastes accordingly” in line with the woman he falls in love with, in the same way that Petersen constructed a lifestyle wholesale to impress his future wife.
Coming of age novels commonly feature bookish teenagers, unsurprisingly, but Nicholls has managed the impressive feat of writing a teenage boy who is sympathetic but not sensitive in an appealing way or particularly talented or often, likeable. He is the quietest of a gang of four boys alongside his friends Harper, Fox and Lloyd but maybe not as blameless as he thinks, given that he finds an anonymous message “you made me cry” graffitied on to his shirt on the final day of school. As he later reflects: “To not be a dick; this was the great rite of passage we had yet to pass through.”
In his characterisation of Charlie, there is a reverberation of Nicholls’s description of himself as an actor “I had no capacity, I had no charisma, I had no ability. I saw enough good actors to know that you couldn’t take your eyes off them. I was one of those actors that you could very happily take your eyes off. And people did”. And as it happens, Charlie reveals himself to be a fairly hopeless actor when he joins a drama group over the summer, motivated by fancying the girl playing Juliet in an amateur production of Romeo and Juliet. As another cast member tells Charlie of his casting as Benvolio, a minor character “You had a faceless, milk-and-water quality that was just perfect.” (It also transpires that all drama societies of young people are excruciating and thrilling in the same way – all the confessionalism and camaraderie that we thought were unique to our own experience of putting on plays is here). Nicholls appealingly positions Charlie as someone who hates the theatre and winningly, both his parents appear to groan slightly when they realise they will have to come and watch him in the play. His is not an upwardly mobile family and the indignities of having to downsize after his father’s business fails are beautifully drawn.
Charlie’s parents are both brilliantly written and reminded us a great deal of the mum and dad from Joe Dunthorne’s wonderful Submarine, both the novel and Richard Ayoade’s film version. All the guilty loathing of the adolescent and parent dynamic is laid bare here, particularly when Charlie’s mother tells him he must stay with his father after they split up, whilst his sister will live with her because he’s the oldest and Charlie snaps back to her ‘No, you’re the oldest!’ Charlie’s mother is less of a seductive figure than his straightforwardly tragic father, who is so broken and useless. She shares something of the brisk warmth that Mary, Patrick Melrose’s beautifully stoic wife possessed in Nicholls’s television script of St Aubyn’s novels.
And the theme of fatherhood recurs throughout Nicholls’s work: Douglas Petersen not knowing how to be with his son Albie in Us, Patrick Melrose being rescued somewhat from transgenerational haunting by loving his own sons (having been abused by his own father) and now Charlie, alternately repulsed and protective of his shambolic and depressed father. If that sounds dark, it often is, but there is also plenty of lightness here, not least in the characterisation of Fran, the object of Charlie’s affection. She is beautiful to Charlie but far from a chocolate box heroine, a bubble of snot blooming from her nostril during a significant romantic scene. Charlie also seems enchanted by how terrible she can look when he wakes up next her to for the first time and because this is Nicholls, he manages to make this not seem cruel but real, instead: “Her mouth hung open gormlessly and I could feel her breath, hot and stale and boozy like the back room of a pub and I loved this, loved the black smudges round her eyes and the grease on her forehead […] I loved the stinking realness of her head on my shoulder and the damp warmth of her thigh across mine.”
If we have one complaint, it is not that Charlie and Fran and their friends don’t seem like teenagers, they feel horrifyingly adolescent in a way that makes us recall our own youths somewhat painfully but they don’t particularly feel like teenagers from the nineties. We are almost exactly the same age as Charlie and although Nicholls has spoken about the “spacehopper effect” whereby novels set in the seventies are self-consciously burdened by spacehoppers and flares and chopper bikes, we could happily have coped with a mention of what a terrible band Shed Seven were or John Prescott throwing a punch at a protestor or whatever other period detail Nicholls might have deemed pertinent to the nineties. As it is, there is a glancing reference to Princess Diana’s death and that it is it. This is a small issue, nonetheless, given how faultless Nicholls’s prose is. He shares that quality that Sally Rooney has of writing novels that can be wolfed down without any accompanying queasiness: you want to keep reading because you care not because you’re scared or revolted, as is so often the case with compulsive narratives. And similarly to Marianne in Rooney’s Normal People, Charlie’s life is changed by the possibility of love: “if I could be with Fran Fisher, if she could somehow accept me and all my past faults, all the squalor and weirdness and worry, then in turn I would become a better version of myself, a version so excellent and exemplary it was practically new. I had not been the person I wanted to be but there was no reason why this couldn’t change.”
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