My maternal grandparents met in occupied Germany at the end of the Second World War. My grandfather’s Army regiment was stationed in a small town near Düsseldorf, and as he walked down the street one day a young woman caught his eye. A couple of men from his regiment were already chatting her up, without much success, but as the ranking officer my grandfather decided to take matters into his own hands; after sending the pair of them back to barracks, he immediately asked her out. Six months later, they were married.
I thought about that story, told to me many times over the years by my mother, as I read the first few chapters of Laura Barnett’s charming, clever and thoroughly enjoyable debut novel. I also thought about my great-grandfather, spared death on a World War One battlefield by the cigarette case in his breast pocket; and even about my own parents, who got together at a party that my dad only attended because his new housemate offered to drive him the four hours from Hamburg to Cologne, in a moment of drunken generosity the night before.
We all have our Sliding Doors moments, both in our own lives and in the lives of those who preceded us. Barnett’s takes place in Cambridge in 1958, when two young students, Eva and Jim, meet-cute on a rainy street as she cycles to class – or do they? Out of that one (potential) encounter, three different timelines are set in motion. We get to watch them diverge – and come back together – over 50+ years, and Barnett’s real triumph lies in the way she weaves them around each other, creating three individually satisfying stories that somehow add up to even more than the considerable sum of their parts.
Jim is a convincing, engaging and three-dimensional male lead, but it is Eva who really carries the book; she is its heart and soul, and through her life (or lives) Barnett shows us how marriage, motherhood and a crushing sense of duty rubbed up against the emerging liberal values of the 1960s and 1970s. By the time she emerges into calmer waters, you can’t help but want her to succeed – to be happy.
The Versions of Us is further elevated above the humble airport novel by its author’s easy, confident use of language; economical and judicious, yet unafraid to wear her intellect on her sleeve. In one of my favourite passages, Jim and a colleague
“…are quiet then, enjoying the silence of men happy to leave the finer details of their feelings between parentheses.”
while later in the story he looks down at a beach
“…flooded with a disorientating happiness; and he savours it, drinks it in, because he is old enough now to know happiness for what it is: brief and fleeting, not a state to strive for, to seek to live in, but to catch when it comes, and to hold on to for as long as you can.”
Comparisons with One Day and The Time Traveler’s Wife are inevitable, and as someone who loved both of those books I was perhaps an easy mark for this one. That said, The Versions of Us relies less on its central structural quirk than either of its two literary ancestors, and its emotional impact somehow feels more organic – there is no laboured pathos here. Instead the reader is left with a sense of quiet dignity; of two lives well-lived, in all their incarnations, and despite their various setbacks and pitfalls.
Clocking in at a touch over 400 pages in standard paperback, The Versions of Us is an excellent addition to the Richard & Judy stable, rooted in strong central characters and a story that is at once richly expansive and tightly controlled. It is a book that ought to put Laura Barnett firmly on the list of young British authors to watch – I’ll certainly be getting my hands on whatever she writes next.