Book Review: Us, by David Nicholls

cv_usUs arrived with the fanciest packaging I have yet encountered as a blog editor. The box was a corrugated cardboard suitcase, covered in stickers for each city visited by our main character. It included a travel pillow, and a packet of English barley sugars. The review proof copy of the book has a slipcase and a great, understated cover design that I didn’t look at closely until I realised at the end that it may have given me a clue as to what would happen over the course of the book. No expense has been spared for this expected bestseller by David Nicholls, the follow up to One Day. And at the time I received it, it was still in the running for the 2014 Man Booker Prize.

This book absolutely deserves to be a bestseller, and I would expect it to be a hit for the Southern Hemisphere summer sales. But I will say it wasn’t a huge surprise to see it knocked off the Man Booker list when it came to the shortlist time, if only because it is too straightforward, less experimental and certainly less grand in scale than most Man Booker prize-winners of the past few years have been (including The Luminaries).

Nicholls proves in this book that he is an expert observer of family life. Our narrator for this book is a 50-something year old scientist, who has had his ups and downs career-wise, regarding as the greatest period of his life as the moment he realised his now-wife was his perfect match. Unfortunately, the book starts with his wife shaking him awake in the middle of the night to inform him that it is time they went their own separate ways. This news comes as their only child, Albie, prepares to go away to Art School to study photography, and as they are about to embark on a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe as a family.

The depiction of Douglas is so detailed you feel as though he is a great friend, somebody you know everything about and love despite his occasionally despicable actions, generally involving his son, who he has never understood, nor felt understood by. This relationship hits home as a parent as well as as a child. There is so much as a child that you cannot possibly ‘get’ about your parents, no matter how much you know of them. And as a teenager, so often you are so wrapped up in your own concerns, how can you possibly be expected to care what your parents are going through?

The book is as much about the interaction between chaos and order as it is about human relationships, and this is where the subtext lies. He says, of Connie’s superior parenting ability: “…she never seemed resentful – or only occasionally – of the hours and days and weeks that he consumed, the attention he demanded, the irrational tears, the trail of destruction and spilt pain and mashed carrot that he left behind, never repulsed or angered by the vomit that stained our new sofa, the poo that found its way into the cracks between the floorboards…”

Douglas’s own reaction to this chaos of childhood was to try and force it to be ordered, through gluing together lego sets (I recently watched The Lego Movie, there are echoes of the dad in this with Douglas’ actions), through trying to encourage his way of thinking in his child. As an only child, I can understand this imbalance of parenting between two parents, and I felt I understood a little more about my own father’s reactions to my own life choices from this.

This is a wonderful trip through Europe and a family’s relationships, which is funny, truthful, and very well written. I recommend it to anybody as a great read this coming summer.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

by David Nicholls
Published by Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN 9780340896990

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