Book review: Under The Same Stars, Tim Lott

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Simon and Schuster, £16.99

THIS is Tim Lott’s first adult novel in seven years, and he has chosen to base it on a real-life, very personal experience.

Novelists usually like to claim their work isn’t personal at all and maintain their distance; Lott is happy to close the gap in this case. But such a personal link does beg the question, why choose the fictional form for this story? Why not write a memoir of a personal event rather than a novel?

These questions crop up because so much of this novel feels non-fictional, from the journalistic ranting of its main character, Salinger Nash, to the weak plot twists. Lott undertook a road trip across America with his estranged brother Jeff in 2008, to get to know him and his brother’s love of his adopted country better.

Likewise, Salinger Nash also undertakes a road trip across the States with his estranged brother, Carson (both boys are, of course, named after great American writers and their association, for their father, with freedom).

Like Lott, Salinger suffers from depression and another bout beckons when his brother receives a letter from the girlfriend of the father who walked out on them many years before.

She tells them their father is seriously ill, but won’t say where he is. Cason suggests they both look for him, but Salinger is initially reluctant. His girlfriend, Tiane, persuades him to go, then mysteriously changes her mind on his way to the airport. To add to the mystery, Salinger has found in his deceased mother’s effects a photograph of a little boy with a battered face. Who is the child and what happened to him?

The turning of a real-life experience into a novel does mean that certain plot contrivances are necessary, but these are unconvincing here – Tiane herself is thinly sketched, and it’s possible to guess who the little boy is.

Lott tries to give Carson depth, making him a Christian who kills a dog that gets in the way of their Lexus and who praises the death penalty. So far, so contradictory, but I couldn’t help thinking how much more effective such contradictions would have been in a memoir – if they were true. And in that “if” lies the nub of the problem. Perhaps Lott simply didn’t have enough material for a memoir and felt the need to make things up, but he has an excellent eye for all that is different about a country we feel we know, and the real state of play between the two brothers is a tantalising prospect.

I don’t care very much about either liberal, ranting Salinger (whose depression makes him an unattractive figure from the start, as even the business class plane ticket his brother buys for him fails to make him crack a smile) or the contradictory Carson, but I do care about Tim and Jeff Lott, and would have loved to have found out more about their relationship. As a novel, alas, this real-life experience doesn’t quite cut it. «