Book reviews: We Are Not Ourselves | Please, Mister Postman

Mathew Thomas struck a million-dollar publishing deal with his debut novel. Picture: Contributed

Mathew Thomas struck a million-dollar publishing deal with his debut novel. Picture: Contributed

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AS A young student in New York, Eileen Tumulty longs for the day when she will marry, take another name, and move away from her own resolutely Irish-American family.

We Are Not Ourselves

Matthew Thomas

Fourth Estate, £16.99

Bright, attractive and strong-willed, she is determined to shake off the poverty-haunted, alcohol-ridden atmosphere of her childhood and achieve not only wealth and comfort but a sense of belonging.

Although Matthew Thomas’s debut novel tells the story of three generations of Eileen’s family, the story is mainly from her point of view. She meets Edmund Leary, the man she is to marry, on a blind date on New Year’s Eve, an outing she has been vociferously resisting. But as her roommate invites their two dates inside their apartment, Eileen thinks she hears both softness and strength in Ed’s voice. He knows she didn’t have to come on this date, he whispers in her ear, but he promises to make it worth her time. At these words, “her heart kicked once like an engine turning over on a wintry afternoon”.

Ed is a scientist, a brain expert, with a special interest in the effects of psychotropic drugs on neural functioning. As they become a couple, Eileen sees a bright and prosperous future before them. However, what neither realises is that they want very different things from life. When Ed is offered a lab of his own, with state-of-the-art equipment and a team of assistants, he turns it down in favour of a quiet life of teaching and scholarship. The same thing happens some years later, when he’s offered a college deanship. While Eileen wants to live the American Dream, her spouse stubbornly refuses to budge.

There are bitter quarrels about Ed’s career, and yet, as Eileen reflects after many years and almost indescribable travail, she understands that she had never believed in something called love until she met Ed Leary. It was when she was dancing with him on that fateful New Year’s Eve, and he kissed her. It was then that she experienced a sensation she had always thought of as “malarkey,” the sense that “everyone around them had disappeared, and it was just the two of them”.

It is this deep, abiding love that is put to a terrible test when Ed is found to have Alzheimer’s at the age of 51. Here the novel takes a darker turn as Eileen struggles with increasing desperation to keep Ed with her and out of a nursing home. The novel’s description of the remorseless progress of the illness – more aggressive at this time of life – reads like a tortuous descent into hell.

Amazingly, however, We Are Not Ourselves isn’t ultimately depressing. Written in calm, polished prose, following one family as its members journey through the decades in an America that is itself in flux, it’s a long, gorgeous epic, full of love and life and caring. It’s even funny, in places – and it’s one of the best novels you’ll read this year.

MAGGIE SCARF

Please, Mister Postman

Alan Johnson

Bantam Press, £16.99

FORMER Labour Cabinet minister Alan Johnson’s second volume of memoirs carries on where he left off in This Boy, his Orwell Prize-winning account of his poverty-stricken London childhood.

After a spell as a shelf-stacker in his late teens, he gets a job as a postman in Barnes, transferring to Slough, where he works all the overtime he can to support his wife and their three young children.

Tragedy, however, isn’t far away. In This Boy it centred on the death of his mother and how his formidable sister looked after him while still a minor herself. Linda seemed to have found happiness with her husband Mike. Easygoing and kind, he was someone Johnson looked up to and who was always there to chat about music over a pint. What he didn’t know at the time was that Mike was a secret alcoholic, and this later led to his suicide. The book is dedicated to him.

Johnson’s political awakening came during the seven-week postal strike of 1971, when he began to take an active role in the postal workers’ union he was to lead more than two decades later. The book covers his rise through the union and subsequent elevation to full-time organiser for the Communication Workers Union. The latter stages of the book take place against the backdrop of the early Thatcher years, with the Falklands War in 1982 and the 1984-85 miners’ strike.

Like its predecessor, Please, Mr Postman is full of pathos and is an immensely readable story of a man from one of the most solidly working class backgrounds of any top-flight Labour politician of his generation.

One question the book poses remains unanswered. Why did a man who endured such hardship in his early years become an ultra-Blairite who pushed through top-up fees for university students as education secretary and presided over the partial involvement of the private sector in the NHS as health secretary? The answers may come in a third book – which, if the first two are anything to go by, will again be one of the most readable political memoirs around.

ANDREW WHITAKER

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