Book review: You Came Back

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CHRISTOPHER Coake was named one of America’s Best Young Writers by Granta, which might make you imagine his first novel would be one of those brash, zeitgeisty affairs.

You Came Back

by Christopher Coake

Viking, 416pp, £12.99

In fact, it’s a story not about youth but about midlife regrets, where all of the characters live with the shadow of past choices and accidents. Not the regrets of 20 or 30 years ago, but the ones which seem so near in time that they can almost be taken back – but not quite.

Mark Fife is 38 and engaged to be married; he’s a website designer in the city of Columbus, Ohio and his life runs on smooth, safe lines. He’s a slightly nebulous character, probably by design, as controlled and rather bland as the prose in which his story is recounted. He’s happy, or at least happy enough. But occasionally he shakes awake with a moment like the Talking Heads song, Once In A Lifetime: “My god, how did I get here?”

This is how: “Ten years ago he’d been married; he’d had a toddler for a son. If a time-traveller had told that long-ago Mark Fife where he’d be in a decade, what lay between him and his future, he might have cut his wrists in the bath.” The son, Brendan, died aged seven, in a fall downstairs; the marriage ended, the parents unable to co-ordinate their grieving. Mark didn’t cut his wrists, but struggled past it, moved on, met someone else, remade his life. The hard part is over, right?

Well, of course not. No one gets over these things, they just get through them. The people around Mark – quirky best friend, supportive new girlfriend, kindly, ageing father – are more interesting characters but they treat him like mended pottery: the glue could wear off any time. His new life cracks when a woman now living in his former marital home suddenly appears to claim that his dead little boy is haunting the place. Since Mark is a rational sort and there’s something obviously loopy about her, it should be easy to dismiss, but in fact a chain of events ensue which force the past back upon him.

His ex-wife Chloe reappears, still loved, but even Mark himself can no longer disentangle whether it’s for her own sake or for the link to his earlier, undamaged self. Naturally, his current partner Allie does not remain entirely supportive forever, because it’s hard to be romantic when everything comes with the corollary that, if the worst hadn’t happened, they’d never have met, never have loved.

The novel is slightly reminiscent of Marghanita Laski’s Little Boy Lost, a small post-war classic which was reissued a few years ago, about a repressed Englishman trying to decide if a young French orphan is his missing son but hardly able to open up enough to find out. Here, too, you want Mark to do the wrong thing, to embrace possibility if only to shake himself out of that frozen shell. Lurking on the edge of the story is Chloe’s version, a bereaved mother’s visceral desperation which flirts with madness. To tell that story would be even more painful; this one is difficult enough.

Yet, while the book is a deeply affecting read, it’s as quick and easy to get through as a thriller. It does sag a little midway, as Mark’s self-righteous (if understandable) anger about the whole suggestion of a ghostly presence drags on – we know he’s eventually going to have to look into it, so resisting the entire plot for so long comes to seem slightly perverse even if it’s realistic. But then, as Chloe brings in a sympathetic psychic, things gallop on and the rest of the tale is a fair page-turner as he finally confronts the terrible fear: what if their boy really has come back? What would that mean, not just for Mark and his view of the world, but for little Brendan himself?

Despite the supernatural elements, the tension comes entirely from the emotional strain. There is too much honesty to fall into pure sentimentality, but the tender horror of loss and guilt is allowed to show without the fear of being too sentimental, which would have derailed it just as much. It’s a delicate balance which Coake handles perfectly, contained within the simple, flatly descriptive narrative which pulls the reader right along with Mark and his grief, almost all the way.

Perhaps in the end there are a couple of convenient plot twists, but they’re easily forgivable. This novel’s strength is to show that we’re all haunted by the plot twists of our lives; the paths we didn’t take, the other lives we could have lived, which at times seem more real than others.

That’s what fiction is too, of course, and on this showing Coake is a fine new voice.