Sunday, 4 September 2016

Post 41: Where I Become Uncharacteristically Sentimental:The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

I know that as a teacher, I am privileged to get six weeks off in the summer. I enjoy the opportunity to totally switch off from work; an opportunity that many folk never get once they start in employment. But boy,do those weeks whizz much faster than a half term somehow!

My latest read was a great one to end the holidays. The Versions of Us is really three stories in one. Eva and Jim meet at Cambridge university at the age of 19 when she veers off the road on her bicycle when distracted by a dog.  This is the only absolute.  Everything that follows is a series of opportunities...opportunities missed, opportunities taken and the consequences of the decisions that each character makes at different stages.  The only other certainty is that their relationship is at the core of the novel, no matter which version we are reading.

At the heart of the novel is decision making.  We can all empathise with  those moments in life where a choice presents itself.  We can all wonder, "what if?" On the syllabus a few years ago was the Robert Frost poem, The Road Not Taken,(reproduced below).  It is a beautiful poem and its sentiment is played out fully in The Versions of Us. I wonder which decisions you would cite as the one that made all the difference to the life that you ended up living? I have a few.

One of the most determining moments occurred when I was a little younger than the protagonist, Eva. I was 16 and called to an interview for my local sixth form.  Not being academic, but being a solid, dependable worker who was good with people, my form tutor of five years had recommended that I leave school and find a job in a travel agent or something similar.  Not yet ready to work, I took her advice but decided to apply for a BTEC in Business to give me a head start for when I did apply for jobs.  But that interview changed my whole life.  The teacher who interviewed me was a stranger.  I can't even remember his name.  But I am eternally grateful to him.  He talked to me, saw that I had taken O- Level English early and done well and wouldn't let me leave the room until I had chosen three A-level subjects.  He discounted the advice from my form tutor and urged me to aim higher.

That moment catapulted me to A-Level English and a love of literature shared willingly by Mr Naylor and Mr Williams at Cirencester Deer Park Sixth Form. (I never thanked them enough, but they were both amazing teachers and opened up books for me in a way that has given me a lifetime of reading). They then encouraged me to go to university.  No-one in my family had done so before. It was at university that I met my husband and so the version of my life is written.

And so it is in this novel.  Eva and Jim connect.  They date, they stay together, they meet other partners, they remain acquaintances...all possible, indeed plausible.  Laura Barnett makes each version of Eva's life entirely convincing.Part of the fun of reading the book, is deciding which version you want to be "true." Even the ending has three versions.  

What I liked is that none of the versions is sugar coated. None of the lives lived is perfect.  The inherent flaws of humanity permeate each story, and so none of the narratives is without pain.

This book has a lighter style than other multiple narratives such as Life After Life. It is ambitious, beginning with Eva's birth and ending up with her in her seventies. The stories introduce us to a myriad of characters, with Eva's mother Miriam being the one that resonated the most with me. I enjoyed the novel.  It has, as you can probably tell, led me to reflect on life's turns and decisions made. In the cover photo, you can see the version of me in 1984 with my Granny.  My children still cannot comprehend that I was only 14 in that picture!  And it bears only a passing resemblance to the version of me that I am currently working on! The second photo is of me enjoying my last week of the school holidays with Child 1.  We were at the top of the O2 on a glorious day.  And speaking of roads less travelled....I had asked hubby first and then Child 2... both were non-plussed about climbing the outside of the London landmark...and so I turned to Child 1, who took a different decision and we had an amazing day out together.

Six weeks off is a pleasure and a privilege.  The roads I have travelled this summer have been many and I am blessed to have shared different ones with different people. Each person brings something different to my life and I am grateful.

But I am risking great sentiment on the back of this book review and  I must stop!  I'll leave you with Robert Frost's poem.  Perhaps you can share your life determining moments?  Or tell me which version of Laura Barnett's novel you wanted most to be "true."

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;        5
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,        10
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.        15
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference

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