Book review: You Are Here, by David Nicholls

Charting the lives of two solitary divorcees as they try to decide whether to re-engage with the world around them, David Nicholls’ new book is intelligent, sympathetic, amusing and humane, writes Allan Massie

You Are Here is an unusual novel, unusual for our time anyway. It is amusing and true to life. It is gentle, free from fashionable extravagance. There is no showing-off and no oddity. The characters are recognizable middle-class people, the two principal ones being a teacher, Michael, and Marnie, a freelance copy editor. Both are in the second half of their thirties. Both are solitary, after failed marriages. Both are likeable and have friends who worry about them. Michael is clearly unhappy, Marnie less obviously so. A friend they have in common reckons, perhaps rightly, they need to snap out of their willful isolation. Michael’s takes the form of long solitary walks. Marnie confines herself to her small London flat. She is an admirably conservative editor: “it would be a knife through her heart should a ‘whose’ pass for a ‘who’s.’” There is a vey funny passage, to long to quote in full here, when, on a train north, she is editing what is described as an “erotic thriller”.

She is on the train because Cleo, her friend and also Michael’s, has nagged her into joining a weekend walking party crossing the north of England from the Solway to the East Coast, though it is clear from the start that only Michael may last the full trip. However, Cleo’s intention is clear. They will both snap out of themselves, though she has also supplied an alternative friend for Marnie: Conrad, a South London pharmacist. They pair up quite happily at first, but Conrad flunks out after a hard and very wet day. The weather is indeed dreadful – Nicholls is very good on weather, often as important in novels as in life. They do however stop at quite nice hotels, though some are nicer than others: one may have “the ghosts of hygiene inspectors” or, indeed, rooms named after fungal infections: “I’m in Impetigo, you’ve got Ringworm”.

Hide Ad

This is an intelligent, sympathetic, amusing and humane novel, but what is most pleasing is its ordinariness. It is happily free of extravagant or improbable characters, free also of violence and cruelty. Nicholls writes of recognizable people and his characters are all individuals rather than types. Marriages are broken but without violence. There is pain, certainly, unhappiness, loneliness, a touch – but not more than a touch – of bitterness, a nagging unhappiness. But at the same time, the further you read, the more you realize that, while unhappiness is in one sense a choice, it is also something from which recovery is possible. There are second chances in life, third chances too, probably. At the same time Nicholls recognizes that people who have been hurt and have chosen to withdraw to some extent from social life may have done so because that threatens them with commitment, which is a weight and demanding, and because coming back, engaging more fully in life, demands courage. Isn’t it easier and safer to resist that temptation? Perhaps Michael may live more easily with his long solitary walks; perhaps Marnie may live more comfortably with her freelance copy-editing, correcting authors’ grammar and punctuation. Might the solitary life always be easier than a shared one?

David Nicholls PIC: Sophia Spring/PADavid Nicholls PIC: Sophia Spring/PA
David Nicholls PIC: Sophia Spring/PA

These are serious questions, ones with which novelists such as Jane Austen, Susan Ferrier and Anthony Trollope have always concerned themselves. Nicholls, who is a humane as well as comic novelist, recognizes this. The way you live now may be the path of least resistance, the most comfortable way of avoiding hurt and getting through life. But mayn’t it also be escapist, even cowardly, and mightn’t there be another, more satisfying way of living?

Nicholls bring his characters to the point of decision with sympathetic intelligence. He is a novelist who brings understanding to his work; also, happily, he is often very funny.

You Are Here, by David Nicholls, Sceptre, £16.95