In a week when another rejection for my own attempts to be published collides with my inbox and ego, it feels hard to review The Versions of Us, a debut novel by Laura Barnett, not least because it’s so damn wonderful!
As I soothe my bruising with that age-old remedy, Rioja, I wonder about Barnett’s journey. Given the battle between publishers to sign her and the successful sale of television rights, it’s probably fair to say it’s been a very different journey to most first time novelists.
But it’s impossible to be churlish as there is everything to recommend The Versions of Us and very little, if anything, to complain about. Pitched as Sliding Doors meets One Day, it is so much more than that. With Cambridge students Eva and Jim at its heart and an incident, or not, with a bicycle as its crossroads moment, the story unfurls into three. Each is a different strand through their lives, spanning many decades.
I worried at the beginning that it would be too much like Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life – it certainly compares to her wonderful writing, but where, for me, Barnett succeeded and Atkinson made me struggle, is that Barnett kept me loving her characters. I disengaged with Atkinson’s Ursula as I knew she was going to die, again, but Barnett’s Eva and Jim demanded I stick with them. The book shows how every decision we make, from the subtle to the obvious, can change life’s course. Many times I wanted to shake one or both of them, willing them to choose differently, but what was so interesting was watching how their different routes developed even when the ‘right’ decision seemed to be taken.
The way Barnett portrays their love, even when they didn’t understand it themselves, holds the different strands together. Some consistencies on events, places and people helped to ground each version but there was never a sense that I wanted to finish one and get back to the ‘real’ one. All were real, very believable and completely engaging – which is an extraordinary feat.
It pains me to say it, but I wholeheartedly recommend The Versions of Us; it’s acutely observed, beautifully written and wonderfully plotted. Which is probably why publishers clambered over each other to get their hands on it.