In Real Life
By Chris Killen
Canongate, 368pp, £12.99
In real life nothing is permanent or perfect – the shifting scenery of reality is not within our command. In Chris Killen’s Real Life – the restless follow-up to his well-received debut, The Bird Room – harsh realities persistently impinge on the dreams and yearnings of his characters, yet somehow the dreams themselves never quite dissolve.
In part this book is a paean to optimistic persistence. Lauren, Ian and Paul have been close throughout their university years. The time-frame of the story covers the decade of their maturing, opening in 2004 when they are all 21.
As graduates, Paul and Lauren are living as lovers. Ian, a member of Paul’s wider circle, has fancied Lauren from afar, and among the stray men of her acquaintance he is the one she “can really talk to” about significant things. She too, it turns out much later, has a hankering for Ian, who shares Paul’s creative ambitions (Paul is on the verge of becoming a writer, while Ian is in a band and is cutting a record, and he has solo work to his name).
We follow Lauren through 2004, beginning with her decision to break with Paul – “anxious/paranoid, bad breath, never plans ahead, pretentious, unimaginative, works in a bar, has never given me an orgasm”. When Paul discovers the list, they row, and she leaves, first to live with her mother, then to live in Vancouver, where she does drugs and has sex with Per, a passing Norwegian who’s no consolation for her sense of dissatisfied limbo.
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During the year she spends in Canada, out of the blue she is emailed by Ian. “Everything is so much nicer and brighter and happier here,” she replies, “exactly what I was hoping for”. Killen layers her responses to Ian’s increasingly intimate emails with a bitter-sweet complexity, setting up an expectation of unfinished business. It takes ten years and many chapters to reach a tentative conclusion.
While following Lauren’s 2004 adventures, the reader is simultaneously told, in the present tense, the story of Ian, in Ian’s own words, and the progress of Paul, who has finally made it as a novelist. Paul and Ian’s narratives have 2014 settings, Ian’s tale recounting his failures as a musician, now dossing at his sister’s place, unemployed, spendthrift and frittering his life away. Paul is lecturing at Manchester university’s creative writing school, living in a bed-sit with his girlfriend Sarah, struggling in vain to muster the oomph for a second novel, and indulging in an ill-advised liaison with a student.
When Killen shifts the action to Lauren’s present life, we find her still single, managing a charity shop and contemplating a blind date. Approaching her 31st birthday, still adrift from her friends from uni, and remembering another failed relationship, an affair begun in Canada, which, as it transpired, had a serious pay-off for Lauren’s then growing closeness to Ian.
If this sounds convoluted, Killen, who in the final sections gives Lauren a first-person voice in the present tense (thus bringing her closer), presents the reader with the Lauren/Ian email correspondence from the past. It becomes the narrative’s heart of intrigue and its principal driver of suspense.
The emails are tagged to the tails of the many quick-fire short chapters, bringing Ian and Lauren’s current lives into even sharper focus. Paul meantime is kept more arm’s-length by Killen’s use of the third person. We know little about his relationship with his girlfriend; his self-absorption makes him more difficult to care about, but Killen has a talent for bringing to life the inner turmoil of his characters, and a way with a striking metaphor that makes Paul a convincing presence.
Will the three old friends reunite? The answer seems plain from the earliest chapters – the question is how, and when and where. Killen sets his denouement at a pre-wedding party to celebrate the nuptials of another long-detached buddy. A Shakespearean blend of bile and poignant comedy leads to a swansong that only the hardest-bitten reader will resist. But who will stroll arm and arm into the sunset, and with whom? Killen skilfully keeps us on tenterhooks to conclude a convincing study of growing up if not entirely growing wise.
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