An unnamed narrator – a writer – flies to Athens to teach on a creative writing summer school course ‘entitled “How to Write”’. On the plane from Heathrow, she sits next to a man with whom she has a conversation about his life in the way that only seems possible when you converse with a stranger you never expect to see again. He talks about his upbringing, his two wives, his children and the way the second wife treated one of the children from the first marriage.
The narrator reveals little of herself during this time. The only real comment from her is that she’s recently moved to London with her children, having lived in the countryside for ten years – seven with her then husband and a further three following the end of the marriage.
It had been, in other words, our family home, and I had stayed to watch it become the grave of something I could no longer definitively call either a reality or an illusion…a marriage is a system of belief, a story, and thought it manifests itself in things that are real enough, the impulse that drives it is ultimately mysterious. What was real, in the end, was the loss of the house, which had become the geographical location for things that had gone absent and which represented, I supposed, the hope that they might one day return.
As they arrive in Athens, the man (who she refers to as ‘my neighbour’) asks for her telephone number. They go on to meet twice more when he takes her out on his boat.
The narrator goes to meet Ryan, another tutor on the course, and then establishes herself in the flat she’s staying in for the duration of her time in Athens. The rest of the book concerns her teaching and meeting up with a number of people – other writers, friends and ‘my neighbour’ – before the tutor who will take over from her arrives and they spend a brief amount of time together. There are no spoilers there as the plot is scant. The book concerns itself with the stories of the people the narrator meets. This is a novel of ideas, rather than one of plot or character; it’s about narratives – the ones we construct and what they tell us about how we see ourselves and what other people take from them.
Before the narrator leaves ‘my neighbour’ at the end of the plane journey, she tells him:
I remained dissatisfied…by the story of his second marriage. It had lacked objectivity; it relied too heavily on extremes, and the moral properties it ascribed to those extremes were often correct…I found I did not believe certain key facts…Reality might be described as the eternal equipoise of positive and negative, but in this story the two poles had become disassociated and ascribed separate, warring identities. The narrative invariably showed certain people – the narrator and his children – in a good light, while the wife was brought in only when it was required of her to damn herself further. The narrator’s treacherous attempts to contact his first wife, for instance, were given a positive, empathetic status while his second wife’s insecurity – well-founded, as we now knew – was treated as an incomprehensible crime…this was a story in which I sensed the truth was being sacrificed to the narrator’s desire to win.
The ideas in the book are interesting and it’s mostly well written – there are some terrible similes (if, like me, you have a problem with similes in general). However, I’m not convinced this works as a novel. We meet the people the narrator meets and learn their stories – or the stories they want to tell her – but we barely get to know the narrator and it’s here the issue lies; she distances us from the stories and herself, leaving the reader nothing to grasp to help us through the narrative. I don’t mind a protagonist being unlikeable; I enjoy character studies as much as a plot-driven novel, but to give us nothing, is asking a lot. The point of this seems to be explained by the writer who arrives at the end of the book. She too has flown – this time from Manchester – and has spent the flight in conversation with the man sitting next to her – a diplomat.
He was describing, she realised, a distinction that seemed to grow clearer and clearer, the more he talked, a distinction he stood on one side of while she, it became increasingly apparent, stood on the other. He was describing, in other words, what she herself was not: in everything he said about himself, she found in her own nature a corresponding negative. This antidescription, for want of a better way of putting it, had made something clear to her by a reverse kind of exposition: while he talked she began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank. Yet this shape, even while its content remained unknown, gave her, for the first time since the incident, a sense of who she was.
As a reader, I would have liked the protagonist to have let us in, to give us more of a sense of who she was.