This – Nicholls’ fifth novel after the overwhelming success of Starter For Ten, The Understudy, One Day and Us – is a very enjoyable, very good read. In some ways the most severe criticism I might make of it is that it is almost too good. There is a zinger of a line on almost every page; I laughed, I cried, and at some points I did both at once, which is never good in pollen season. It is classic tragicomedy: comedy being tragedy plus time.
The plot concerns a teenager, Charlie Lewis, who is not in a good place. His parents have separated, his father is a bankrupt depressive. Charlie has flunked his exams, he thinks, and his besties are more and more beastly. He is described at the outset as “the kind of boy you don’t remember in the school photograph” and his nickname – given grudgingly – is “Nobody”. So the perfect tabula rasa for a tale of first love. On a cycle trip to avoid his increasingly drunken and resentful father, while reading Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, he is stumbled upon (note the passive tense) by a young woman, Fran. After helping her limp back to a nearby stately house, in which she does not live, he is immediately smitten. But moreover, he is subtly inveigled into taking part in a local amateur dramatic company’s staging of Romeo And Juliet. There is so much plot in this book (and readers will realise that the title comes from the play – parting is such sweet sorrow); but it might as well have been “the course of true love never did run smooth”. The comedy and tragedy intertwine the whole time. The other actors are from far more privileged backgrounds, and Charlie is often ill at ease. Some of these scenes are the most poignant and plangent in the novel.
There is a whiff of Brideshead Revisited in the awkwardness and aspiration, vying with each other the whole time. The setting of the majority of the novel around amateur dramatics has a touch of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, or Alan Ayckbourn’s A Chorus Of Disapproval, where the satire disguises a stiletto about class, arrogance and need. And of course, we all know the plot of Romeo And Juliet, but Nicholls manages some clever twists which I would not reveal, and also has a running commentary on the play – such as the fact that the lovers actually spend little time being in love, that it is more about the failure of the older generation and that hooliganism was nothing new to Shakespeare.
If there were one other aspect of the novel to which I would confess some wariness it is around the surrounding cast. It is, as well as a melancholy story, a comic one. So in the troupe of young ac-tors (the hyphen is intentional) we have a Vietnamese woman, a foppish young man, a diligent black man, a lesbian and so on. It seems almost prefabricated to appeal to film producers. One can imagine them thinking that so-an-so would be ideal for that and this-or-the-other would be a shoo in for that. The actual organisers of the Full Fathoms Five company would provide no end of walk-on comic relief roles, although they are all given grace notes of humanity amid the mockery. There are numerous references to jazz and pop music, like a ready-made soundtrack.
But the important thing is the actual writing. There is one extended section involving drug use which constantly asserts that whatever they have taken is having no effect, and yet the prose breaks down into a stream of consciousness that shows it most evidently has. The most intriguing aspect of the writing is a kind of “double-bluff” sentence, which makes the uncertainty of the teenage years painfully evident. For example we read “I half expected Alex to slap Alex’s hand away”, during a particularly egomaniacal incident. Or “I’m not sure that even a quick death is ever quick enough. Who knows?”. Or when one character “scoffed and laughed, the kind of unreal laughter that is spelt out, ha-ha, ho-ho”. Charlie has a rhetoric twist, in which sentences often torque around saying “I did… but I didn’t” or unveiling hidden contradictions. “If this creativity business was meant to make us more free and confident then why had I never felt so constricted and self-conscious?”
It is rare to read a novel with so many quotable quotes in it – which is why I said it almost too good – but my favourite was a description of something being “as dull and uninvolving as watching the nativity play of a child you’ve never met”. The lines come thick and fast throughout the novel, but they do not compromise the emotional core of social alienation, young love and (minor spoiler) what we think in retrospect.
In all, it is a bravura performance from someone with a track record in fashioning books that are both eminently readable and emotionally subtle. Sentimentality is an underrated genre in some ways. Done well it is incredibly affecting (pace Oscar Wilde on the death of Little Nell), but it hard to get right. Sweet Sorrow manages to be interesting, moving, hilarious and sad at the same time. I know when my heartstrings are being pulled, but tugged they assuredly were. - Stuart Kelly
Sweet Sorrow, by David Nicholls, Hodder & Stoughton, £20