Rating: 3 stars
I loved Kit de Waal’s debut novel, My Name is Leon, so when I heard that she had her second book out and it was on the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, I slung in a library reservation. I had a bit of a wait. Lots of people wanted to read it before me. Were we all justified in our anticipation?
My Name is Leon was always going to be a tough act to follow. I’ve never read anything like it, and I loved the characters and the way de Waal described their world so clearly. The Trick to Time was always going to be a different book. The characters are more typical of literary fiction. The title has the same kind of ring to it as something by any number of brilliant writers in the genre. The blurb about de Waal’s book put me in mind of Colm Tóibín and Maeve Binchy.
I spent some time gazing at the cover of the book, which shows a beach, and a sea of blues, greens and indigos stretching away beneath a cloudy sky. Silver curlicues have been embossed over the image in certain places. It’s restful. As I gazed, I noticed the obligatory soundbite from a fellow sophomore writer. I try not to read these cover intrusions. They rarely say anything helpful. This one, I noted with interest, isn’t even a comment on de Waal’s second book. It’s a recommendation for My Name is Leon. The soundbite on the back cover, from a writer about to publish her third book, does refer to The Trick to Time. She says it’s tender with a fierce undercurrent of tension and heartbreak.
I found myself drifting a little as de Waal introduced the main character, Mona. Some things about Mona’s life are made to seem cryptic, but weren’t quite intriguing enough for me to care. Mona is an ordinary woman. She has a less than ordinary job, painting and clothing custom dolls for an international clientele. She’s on the cusp of sixty but she seems older. She’s on her own. Her assistant in her toy shop is about to leave for a new job. The carpenter who makes the dolls that she paints and clothes is reticent. A sleepless neighbour in the block of flats across from Mona gives her a bow every time Mona is sleepless and stands at her window facing his. Her friend Val lives 177 miles away.
Mona is ordinary in the way the mothers in Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse are ordinary. She might be interesting in some way, but it needs to be winkled out. Her languidness is verging on dreary at the start of the book.
Gradually, Mona comes to life through a combination of childhood memories of growing up in Wexford and her early adulthood as an Irish immigrant to Birmingham, and a developing sense of who she is now in relation to her friends and acquaintances. Mona has experienced loss. She is looking for something. She is the woman you pass in the street and take no notice of. But someone does take notice of her. Her neighbour who shares her sleepless nights across the gap between their blocks of flats begins to court her when they bump into each other in a coffee shop in town.
I liked the passages describing Mona’s childhood and her early years in the UK. I felt on familiar ground. But that familiarity made the book a little disappointing for me. For the first half of the novel I didn’t feel it said anything that other books haven’t said before. It’s not a bad book, not at all. De Waal’s prose is as descriptively evocative as it was in My Name is Leon. But where the characters in that book got a grip of me and pulled me through the story from the off, the characters in this book for a long stretch felt like strangers whose conversations you can’t help overhearing on a bus or in a café – you get a window on their lives and who they are but you never really know them.
It took the growing friendship between Mona and her neighbour Karl to bring the book to life for me. There was a discussion on Books Are My Favourite and Best recently about whether you’re an abandoner or a finisher. This novel is a case in point, an example of my reluctance to abandon. I was ready to give up on it about five chapters in, but my liking for Kit de Waal meant that I ploughed on. And my stubbornness paid off. Not quite halfway through, something clicked and what de Waal was doing made sense to me. This is a book about loss. From children who lose parents too soon, and parents who lose children before they have chance to get started, to the loss of friends and the loss of lovers. It’s about how we don’t allow ourselves to grieve or to talk, but instead internalise our sorrow, carrying it with us, letting it wash us out and hold us back. It’s about the way unacknowledged grief becomes an accountant of every regret we have over things we said and didn’t say, things we did and didn’t do, in relation to the lost loved one.
Mona’s friendship with Karl is simultaneously lovely and smothering. Karl is on his own. He has suffered loss. He brings Mona to the surface, gives her physicality, because he interacts with her physically in a way that none of the other characters in Mona’s present do. His physicality is intense, though. There is an insistence to it that I found oppressive at times. He is greedy for Mona’s attention, and I understood the way she swung between taking a risk and running away.
Their growing friendship coincides with the revelation of a traumatic moment in Mona’s past. De Waal describes it so well that I held my breath as I read, and I wanted to hold Mona when it was over. It is tragedy heaped on tragedy. In the hands of some writers, it might have been melodramatic, but de Waal uses the same skills she employed in My Name is Leon to dial down the drama and focus on the kindness of strangers towards those who are in anguish.
I was forty pages from the end when the final penny dropped, making sense of the drift and the mystery at the start of the book. And it made me realise how clever Kit de Waal is. I’d spent a lot of the book thinking there were too many stories, too many ideas, and none fully realised. When the penny dropped, I saw that they were all one story, from different angles, slowly coming into focus. And that made me want to go back to the beginning and read it all again, to find the clues I’d missed, to see the Mona I hadn’t realised was there.
Unfortunately, de Waal lost me again with her ending, which I found unconvincing and a bit of a cop out. I don’t believe that either of the characters concerned, given what they have gone through, would have ended up in the place that de Waal puts them.