You’ll forgive me if I start this post with a little bit of trepidation. I’ve never written a review of a book before with the knowledge that the author would peruse my musings. Takes me back to the first review I had printed in the Oxford Student newspaper, of Ian McEwan’s Saturday. As he was busy filling his pockets with money, it probably troubled him little that I found the novel ill-conceived, cliché-ridden and rather dull. Luckily for Angela Young – the first ‘Y’ in my Book Journal, for those keeping tabs – I didn’t find her debut novel Speaking of Love to be guilty of any of these crimes.
In fact, and Stuck-in-a-Book knows no higher accolade, it’s going straight into ’50 Books You Must Read But Might Not Have Heard About’. Not something I do lightly, you understand. As Mr. Bennet might say, read on.
Angela Young’s novel has similarities with a couple of other modern novels I’ve mentioned on here – Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, and Margaret Pelling’s Work For Four Hands. The main similarity is that one reads investigatively; there is a central mystery to be unfurled, which will help explain why the characters act as they do, respond (or, rather, don’t) to each other in the ways they do. Even without all the other reasons to read on, the need to discover how all the pieces fit together is enough to keep anybody hooked.
Speaking of Love is divided into three narrative strands, Iris’s Story; Vivie’s Story; Matthew’s Story. At first I thought this was overkill, and did get a little confused – surely we don’t need all three voices? How wrong I was. They are distinct personas, and Young cleverly presents Vivie in the third person, alongside Iris and Matthew in the first person, so little overlap occurs. No character has more than a few pages at any one time, and they always took up the narrative again at exactly the moment I was thinking “Hmm, we haven’t heard from Iris/Vivie/Matthew in a while, I hope they’re next”.
Iris is, appropriately enough, a storyteller – though one who has suffered destructive illness – and is heading towards a storytellers’ festival. Vivie, her daughter, hasn’t seen her for years, and is suffering her own personal crises. Matthew, Vivie’s childhood friend, is also off to the festival, with his father, to hear Iris. As these characters and their relationships are explored, so too are their shared and separate pasts – pieces of the puzzle are continually proferred, though never in such a way as they feel incongruous in the narrative. Nothing in Young’s novel is forced, and, given the often stark or emotional subject matter, she does amazingly well to avoid being either saccharine or maudlin. The tagline, as it were, is “Speaking of Love is a novel about what happens when people who love each other don’t say so.” While true, I hope that doesn’t undermine the depth of this novel, the beautiful character portraits and the true humanity which Young has depicted.
Thought I’d give you a little quotation. This makes the novel seem perhaps rather more enigmatic than it is, but it’s also a great, tantalising taster of Speaking of Love, which demonstrates the importance of its key themes; storytelling, relationships, the impact of the past.
‘If life was a story, Vivie,” said her mother, “I could retell it. But it isn’t and I can’t. I just wish that what happened to me never happened in front of you. I wish that you hadn’t had to do what you did and I wish that you hadn’t been so very frightened by it all. That’s what I wish.’