This Must Be the Place is Maggie O’Farrell’s most ambitious novel to date, moving around the world and through a cast of characters. At its centre though is the marriage of Claudette and Daniel.
The novel begins in 2010 with a man standing at the perimeter of the garden. As Daniel spots him and considers how quickly he can get to Claudette and their children, if necessary, Claudette comes around the side of the house, baby on her back, brandishing a shotgun. She fires two shots and the man leaves. It’s revealed in the first section of the novel that this isn’t as crazy as it seems: Claudette was a famous film star who faked her death and the death of her son and bought a house in rural Donegal which isn’t on the map, can’t be seen from the road and requires you to pass through twelve gates to get to it. In the circumstances, the idea that someone might have found her when she doesn’t want them to seems fairly plausible.
To apply the word ‘famous’ to her wouldn’t be entirely accurate. Fame is what she’d had before she’d done what she did; what came afterwards went beyond into a kind of gilded, deified sphere of notoriety. These days, she was known less for her films than for having vanished right at the height of her career. Poof. Ta-da. Just like that. Thereby making herself into one of the most speculated-about enigmas of our time.
Daniel is a linguist, currently teaching at the university in Belfast. He’s about to go to work to deliver a lecture and then travel on a flight to New York City, to his father’s 90th birthday party in Brooklyn. In the car on the way through the gates from the house to the road, Daniel hears a section of a BBC radio programme on gender and the workplace. An interview plays and he recognises the voice: Nicola Janks, a woman he knew back in the 1980s. When the clip ends, the presenter ‘intones’ that Janks died not long after the interview, a piece of news that is new to Daniel. The significance of this and the impact it will have on his marriage to Claudette is slowly revealed throughout the novel. It also leads Daniel to this revelation before he leaves Belfast:
…my life has been a series of elisions, cover-ups, dropped stitches in knitting. To all appearances, I am a husband, a father, a teacher, a citizen, but when tilted towards the light I become a deserter, a sham, a killer, a thief. On the surface I am one thing but underneath I am riddled with holes and caverns, like a limestone landscape.
The novel contains themes that will be familiar to O’Farrell’s regular readers – loss; the big secret that returns to haunt; relationships, both romantic and familial – but what is different is the way the novel is structured.
This Must Be the Place moves through time, place and character in a non-liner structure. This means we get a chapter told from Daniel’s first person point-of-view in Donegal in 2010, followed by one from Claudette’s point-of-view told in first person plural and second person in London in 1989, followed by third person subjective with Niall, Daniel’s son from his first marriage, in San Francisco in 1999 and so on. Most of the characters get a chapter, only a few have their perspective returned to. This type of structure can be done well, Trumpet by Jackie Kay or Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika, for instance. However, the problem with structuring a novel in this way is that you risk alienating the reader. There was a point when I grew weary of being jolted to yet another alien point-of-view, disorientated and trying to grasp on to something that would tell me who this person was (I read it in under 24 hours and I still couldn’t keep the cast of characters in my head). Having said that, some unexpectedly beautiful pieces come out of this structure: the chapter from Teresa, Daniel’s mother’s perspective is heart-breaking but done with subtlety and quiet restraint; Rosalind, a stranger Daniel meets on safari, has an interesting story with parallels to Daniel’s own, and there’s a sharp and funny encounter between Claudette’s son, Ari, and a school counsellor.
What makes the novel work is the various aspects of Claudette and Daniel we become privy to, whether through their own actions or the perspectives of others. Both have fascinating back-stories which offer a complex picture of who they are and who they might be together.
This Must Be the Place is an interesting novel. There are moments where it sings and moments of disorientation. I admire O’Farrell’s ambition and her characterisation is superb. I suspect whether you love the book or not will depend on your reaction to its structure.
Thanks to Tinder Press for the review copy.