The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Young & Lovely

Finished David NobbsObstacles To Young Love. It was superb, hilarious, engrossing, moving.

In a way, I’d spoiled the book for myself by reading One Day as, in only the broadest possible sense, Obstacles has a similar plot. Two characters who fall in love as students, only to spend the best part of two decades failing to get together because the timing is never quite right. There the similarity ends, but I’m still a little peeved at Jonathan Coe for not pointing it out in his blurbs for both books.

Obstacles concerns Timothy, soon to follow in his father’s footsteps as a taxidermist, and Naomi, the Juliet to his Romeo in a school production of the Shakespeare play, soon to embark on a career as an actress. And, in this beautifully constructed novel, we follow them through three decades, in which they both marry inappropriately, twice, have children, and occasionally bump into each other, and occasionally, frustratingly, don’t.

At the beginning, I was worried this book would be a series of near-misses, which would have been contrived, but instead the structure comes through in the parallels between their two paths, as their lives follow similar but distinct courses. They both lose their mothers, both grow closer to their once-distant fathers. They both have children, then lose them, and both have unsatisfying lives, in careers at which they don’t excel. And, most significantly, they both lose their faith in god, Naomi fiercely, Timothy in a gradual, considered and regretful evolution. It’s faith in god that prevents them from getting together at the beginning, and it’s the realisation that this faith is what has been holding them back and preventing them from finding true happiness that finally brings them together (along with a heartbreakingly lovely and selfless intervention by a minor character).

Throughout, the novel is filled with Nobbs’ gentle and sensitive wit, in particular the repetition of phrases and ideas for comic effect, and his compassion, as every character is sympathetic in their own way, and given their own journey. In particular, the two fathers are a delight, as is a German tourist encountered by our leads on a trip to Peru. This is a novel of humour, and sadness, but no melodrama - although there are marriage break-ups, they are ones of disappointment, not anger.

One particularly amusing section deals with Naomi’s career in three hackneyed BBC sitcoms, playing the ‘daughter’ – and as viewers of BBC sitcoms throughout the seventies and eighties will know, the ‘daughter’ was always the most unrewarding and underwritten role, and played a little too broadly, earnestly and long-sufferingly as a result.

Which brings me on to the first of my two small criticisms. Although the novel takes place over the last thirty years, there’s not a great sense of the different eras. The sitcom stuff, for instance, feels more like the seventies than the nineties. I’m not suggesting the characters should sit down and discuss the Miners’ Strike or the Spice Girls every three pages, but they both exist in a state of timelessness, untouched by the seasons. Nobbs goes into a great deal of poetic detail about the places they visit, but these are unchanging places, and there’s very little on the changing world.

In Timothy’s case that’s more understandable, as he’s in a small Yorkshire town, in a traditional profession, and indeed his story is one of introspection and social isolation – reminding me of the protagonist of Jonathan Coe’s Maxwell Sim. Someone who doesn’t make connections very easily, who doesn’t feel they fit into the modern world and who keeps it at a distance.

My second small criticism is that occasionally Nobbs’ authorial voice feels like there’s a third person in the room with Naomi and Timothy, and I prefer the stuff written in third-person-limited to third-person-omniscient. But to be honest, that’s a bad criticism, as it would mean losing some of the best jokes and most inspired digressions.

The conceit of the story is that Naomi and Timothy remain in love, even though they are apart, and indeed it is this love that prevents their other relationships from measuring up. This is a timely idea – well, it’s the second novel on the subject I’ve read in as many weeks – but I wonder whether such a relationship would work – because people’s personalities do change, and the person you fell in love with at sixteen and the person you meet two or three decades later are going to be quite different people. Nobbs deals with this problem by giving Naomi and Timothy parallel lives, so they develop but only in similar, gradual and slight ways, but I’m not sure there’s not a more interesting story to be told about a couple reuniting after twenty-odd years and discovering that, whilst they are still made for each other, they are very different people from what they once were.

Oh, and one harsh criticism. I didn’t buy the development on page 381, I felt it undermined Naomi’s character, making her look stupid.

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