Wednesday, 17 August 2016
"What We Didn't Say" Rory Dunlop
Jack and Laura have separated. Jack thinks it's all Laura's fault.
Jack writes to Laura, desperate to put across his side of the story.
Wryly sarcastic and intensely well-observed, What We Didn't Say is about that gap between words and feelings where relationships live - and die.
This is the story of college sweethearts Jack and Laura. It is the story of a marriage in crisis; a reflection on relationships, love, hope, misunderstanding and trust. We meet Jack after the couple have been separated for a while and the story is narrated largely from his point of view. What makes this story unique and one to stand out from any others written about these themes, is the way in which it is told. Jack emails Laura his diary entries and she then adds her comments to his account, giving us her opinion or interpretation of specific events and conversations. For example:
"'Oh Jack won't have any,' Laura said, in the dismissive way a child might speak of their younger brother. [That was the opposite of what I meant. I was proud that you never took drugs. You weren't judgemental or prudish or close-minded, like some of my friends. You just had the strength of character to decide drugs weren't for you. I respected that.] "
As this is an unbiased review, I do feel I need to be honest and admit that sadly I did struggle a little with the format of the narrative. I totally understand what the author was attempting to do and it is a clever way to show how two conversations can be interpreted in such different ways; how one character was really feeling, or what they meant to convey through their words and how they didn't mean to be hurtful or judgemental, but for some reason it didn't quite work for me and it irked me a little. However, I seem to be a minority judging from the rave reviews on Goodreads!!
The relationship between Jack and Laura is a little unbalanced. To me it felt as if Jack is far more in love with Laura than she in him - there is an age difference between them and as time goes on it's clear that Laura began to feel a little constrained by Jack's reluctance towards some ideas and that there was a shift in their relationship. Jack speaks so beautifully about her and his comments reflect a deep understanding of her personality. The metaphors and comparisons show Dunlop's skill as a writer and his ability to capture moments and characters with assured deftness.
"For Laura's spirits were a kite to which I held the string - most of the time she flew above me, lifting me with her, but every now and then she'd drop to the floor and then I'd rush to detangle any crossed strings, and run and drag and jump until she was up in the air again."
Dunlop's writing is quite mesmerising and insightful. I liked the way he wrote about mental and emotional anguish and thought he captured the complexity of Jack's feelings very convincingly. For example:
"emotions and memories are dangerous when they're not articulated- they rattle around the mind, smashing up things. the logic of language puts everything in its proper place........I was using words to put my shame and anger in proportion"
"of course it was a bad idea but bad ideas often look like good ideas in the dark of a sleepless night"
I think ultimately, I found the novel very sad. Perhaps Dunlop is too acute in his ability to capture the bitterness and resentment that can build up in a relationship -particularly when it's not checked and the characters retreat further into misunderstanding. Perhaps his writing is so well observed that it is unsettling and the underlying tragedy too well perceived.
I had a collection of half true one-sentence criticisms of Laura, built up over twenty years, which I kept, like business cards, in the back of my mind for when I'm angry with her. As I stared at the taxi door, I flipped through them: she's selfish; she's thoughtless; she's a flirt. [Which halves are supposed to be true? Being friendly doesn't make me a flirt and I'm no more selfish or thoughtless than you are.]
It is quite hard to read the breakdown between the couple and at times a little frustrating as so much pain could have been avoided if the conversations that happen in the email could have happened at the time. But Dunlop's writing is unfaltering throughout the whole story; his description and style fluent, imaginative and always authentic. When he moves in with a friend, Jack writes that "we pulled each other through the day, from game show to microwave meal to sitcom, like two old drunks on a pub crawl" which I thought was very visual and very well captured.
There is some humour and sarcasm within the prose but for me, I think I found it too overwhelmingly dark and sad. It is a poignant novel and it is definitely one with a message for all in relationships but even though there is some hope of overcoming the worst and rekindling love and friendship, the ending remains heartbreaking.
I think it is well written, original and would make an interesting tv adaptation. Readers who enjoy Nick Hornby and David Nicholls will probably enjoy this novel. It reminded me a little of the film "The Break Up" which also charts the ups and downs of a couple.
"What we didn't say" was published by Bonnier Zaffre on 30th June 2016.
My thanks to NetGalley and Bonnier Publishing for a copy of the book in return for a fair and honest review.
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