Sunday, 14 August 2011

These Important Years - One Day by David Nicholls

The world probably isn't short of blogs about One Day - it is, after all, one of 'those' books that publishing houses dream of, that makes it to the shelves of supermarkets and just keeps on selling. And selling. And selling And selling until Hollywood picks it up for a lucrative movie adaptation with a famous star in one of the lead roles, no matter how ill suited she may seem for it from the book and how much she goes on about how much she fell in love with the character when she read it. It's a 'chattering classes' novel, one that simply everybody's read daaaarling. And it comes emblazoned with hugely complimentary quotes from the likes of Nick Hornby and has a couple of pages dedicated to journalists and authors telling you just how wonderful it is. Which is always enough to set my Hype Bullshit Radar off and usually enough to make me steer clear as I tend to think that anyone trying to convince me of how wonderful something is before I even start on it is trying to hide some serious flaws. I'd mention the likes of Be Here Now (seriously, check out the contemporary reviews which visibly overcompensate for giving the previous album a kicking when it went on to become one of the best selling British albums of all time). At this point I turn into a contrarian and start looking for flaws. It's apt that much of the praise on the cover of the book is between the two faces that adorn the covers - it's a nice little metaphor for my relation with book PR.

But then again, occasionally there are books which upset those prejudices and prove that there's a lack of value in blanket dismissals.

There really is no secret to One Day's success. It simply makes you care about the central characters early and never lets you stop caring about them. That's no mean feat when the male lead, Dex, is required to be an absolute cock for much of the story, drinking, snorting, shagging and spending his way through the London of the Cool Britannia era. It's Em, the female lead, who's the real heart of the novel, who keeps you caring even when you're reading about someone who's become deeply unlikable. She's a wonderfully flawed character whose dreams keep drifting beyond her reach, or become corrupted by reality. She wants the one she can't have, but settles for a marriage to a good hearted man, but one who's wrong for her, drifts into a job where she ends up shagging the boss just because... and yet, she still cares about the guy she hooked up with for one night at the end of university. Because of the travails she endures you warm to her, fumbling her way through life like the rest of us. She's well meaning, but right out of luck. By contrast, Dex lucks into fame and fortune, displaying none of the redemptive qualities of Em. Good things happen to bad people, and bad things to good people for much of this book.

And by having strong central characters Nicholls can then get away with his ambitious premise. Essentially this is a story told via snapshots, temporal postcards from one day of each year from 1988 to 2004. It could feel fragmented, or disjointed but instead Nicholls works hard to make it cohere, and succeeds to the point where you ignore that significant events happening on each day for 20 years strains credulity a touch. Like Cloud Atlas though, it's an ingenious solution to shortening attention spans, essentially being made up of many short stories about the same characters making up one longer story. If you're not enjoying where the characters are, don't worry we'll be moving along in just a minute. And Nicholls also sells this with subtly yet convincingly reminding the reader that time passes - jobs change, relationships change, family members pass away, friends get married. There's the usual signifier of change, the moving on of pop culture, but in conjunction with the changes in the characters' lives it feels natural and not a cheap device.

Sympathetic characters and a strong central idea would be for naught though if the story wasn't right. Nicholls' skill at plotting means the story never feels less than organic - all the progress comes organically from decisions by the characters, it never as if they're puppets dancing to the author's tune. That it eventually leads Dex and Em back to each other never feels forced. There's no feeling of star-crossed romance, instead it's a modern love story between two characters who care about each other too much to not be together. And if the story had an outright happy ending then One Day would still be a worthwhile read. But a good storyteller knows that it's a passable ending, but not a memorable one. A good storyteller knows when to give the story one little last push. It's in Nicholls' willingness to go one step beyond 'they lived happily ever after' that marks this book out as something special. And honestly, given this is a book about being human, with all the bad choices and randomness that life entails, it wouldn't have quite worked perfectly. Instead the twist, when it comes, it brutal and random. It's something that builds skilfully over the last entry, taking me from 'no, surely he wouldn't do that' to 'damn, he did.' If by some chance you've avoided spoiling yourself I won't spoil it here but it'll be fascinating to see if the makers of the film will retain it intact. It's not milked, if anything it's written with a degree of understatement. But in retrospect it's absolutely right, an ending written by the random hand of circumstance, a fitting conclusion to the story of two flawed, human characters.  It makes it feel like a story about two human beings rather than two characters from the inside of the author's head.

No secrets to success then, instead it's simply a fine storyteller at the top of his game with all the elements of success in place - interesting characters, good writing and a damn good story. This feels like the mature work Nicholls had been progressing toward.  And unlike Dex and Em for much of the story, the real secret of its large scale success is that it's in the right place at the right time.

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