By Katy Goodwin-Bates
The central conceit of The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett ( W&N, 2015) is simply “What if?” What if you said “yes” to a drink instead of “no”? What if the romantic path you choose turns out to be a misstep? And, most crucially, what if an author decided it was a good idea to tell three versions of the same story?
She watches his face, and it strikes Eva, with a certainty that she can’t possibly explain – she wouldn’t even want to try – that this is the moment: the moment after which nothing will be quite the same again. – page 11
Barnett’s narrative experiment focuses on Eva and Jim, who meet by chance in Cambridge in 1958 when he offers to help fix her bike after a run-in with a wayward canine. What we then witness are the results of Eva’s differing responses to Jim’s invitation for a drink, which consequently lead to the three different narratives which make up the book. The three versions of the story alternate for the duration of the book, revisiting Jim and Eva, both together and apart, at the same points throughout their lives. For example, we see the same parties and funerals in each of the versions, with obvious differences.
There is no way this book could work if the reader didn’t sympathize with Eva and Jim, since they dominate the narratives. Their actions are not always appealing or conscionable, and there were times when I thought The Versions of Us bordered on becoming rather cynical about marriage, fidelity and family. Overall, however, Barnett centers her writing on characters to whom we can relate. Although the novel’s scope is vast in terms of ambition, geography and time frame, it is deeply intimate in its unrelenting focus on grown-up relationships; despite its fantastical premise, The Versions of Us contains countless vignettes on marriage which will resonate with readers, particularly in representing the tensions which can develop between a high-achieving wife and a husband whose ambitions have been thwarted.
He had looked at her then – really looked at her, and his expression had raised goosebumps on her skin: there, in those dark blue eyes, was the trace of something she’d never seen before. Distance; disbelief; his cool acknowledgement of the growing disparity between her achievements and his. – page 108
The structure of The Versions of Us takes some getting used to. Alternating between three versions of the same story is a confusing way in which to read a book, especially when, at times, the differences between the different versions are so minimal that it’s hard to remember which one you’re reading. Sometimes, this has the effect of creating delightfully smart links between the different versions of the story. At one point, for example, one version shows Jim mocking Eva for wearing a playsuit for a party, causing her to change her clothes, while the alternate narrative, in which Jim and Eva are not together, shows Eva attending the same party in the afore-mentioned playsuit. The book spans 56 years in the lives of the characters, 4 countries and a dizzying number of children and grandchildren; I began to wish I had had the foresight to draw three separate family trees as I went along, just to keep track of the ever-increasing number of additional characters. If reading The Versions of Us again, I’d be sorely tempted to read each version in its entirety, just to more effectively keep track of events.
Barnett’s book has been compared to David Mitchell’s One Day, a novel which memorably made me sob so much on a train that the person sitting next to me moved to a different carriage. In my view, the sheer scope of The Versions of Us robs it of the intimacy which made One Day so affecting, but I will admit to being relieved I wasn’t reading it on public transport by the closing chapters.
The Versions of Us will be available soon at GPL.