The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life Paperback – 27 May 2010
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'a beautiful novel' New Statesman. (New Statesman)
'Modern tales written well can be brilliant and Nicholson's story set in Sussex is one such novel ... It's very well done' Daily Express. (Daily Express)
'Utterly captures the sense of quiet desperation of ordinary lives, the huge emotional vulnerability of having children and the ways in which life turns on a sixpence.' Kate Mosse. (Kate Mosse)
'Nicholson writes about all his diverse characters with great kindness and he's one of those rare novelists who can write about sex' Marina Lewycka. (Marina Lewycka)
'Everyone is hungry to read something broader and more humane than McEwan and Barnes because we want to understand the society we live in ... The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life is what's been keeping me up at nights' Jenni Russell, Sunday Times. (Sunday Times)
'The writing is unobtrusively brilliant - I can't remember enjoying and admiring a new novel more' Elizabeth Jane Howard. (Elizabeth Jane Howard)
'An absolute winner … amazingly perceptive, very moving, wholly absorbing. What a huge treat is waiting for those who have not read it!' Juliet Nicolson, author of The Perfect Summer. (Perfect Summer)
Laura is content enough with her marriage until a former lover crashes back into her life. Suddenly passion and excitement are rekindled. Who will she choose and how much happiness has she a right to expect?See all Product description
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All the characters portrayed here come over as real people, people you are actually interested in reading about, which can be rare in this type of inward looking, angst-ridden storytelling. From the frustrated TV producer, the bored teacher, the lonely middle-aged woman, scared school children, angry farmer and deluded vicar, everyone here is trying to make sense of their place in the world and live a better, more rewarding life. As much a book about identity, sense of purpose and thwarted dreams, Nicholson combines these fairly universal dilemmas together in a really enjoyable and thought-provoking read.
If there is one small criticism to be made, it's that the middle-class, Sussex setting for a book about the chattering classes is unlikely to appeal to those who want their characters tackling more wordly matters, and some readers will think that the people written about here deserve the lives they lead. That said, it works better than so many other books that tackle ideas like this, and at times reminded me of an effective combination of the styles of Penelope Lively and Mark Haddon. Enjoyable and thoroughly recommended. The Kindle version translates to the e-book well, with no obvious typos or formatting errors to report. I'd certainly read another by this author.
Meanwhile Henry, a TV producer, worries that his earning capacity is so much less than his contemporaries who went into finance, worries about supporting his wife and children properly, belittled by the knowledge that his in-laws sometimes sub them. He is also inclined to muse, in a harmless sort of way, about other women.
Alan Strachan, schoolmaster, longs for the letter from the BBC that will tell him his radio play has been accepted. He has an unexpected passion for Friends and a cunning technique for dealing with bullies. His neighbour, Marion, apparently a classic middle-class, middle-aged battered wife, has a crush on him, while convincing herself that it's the other way round. In his class is Alice, daughter of single parent Liz who works full time to support her small family.
The story flits between characters and, occasionally, into the past for Laura's time with Nick in their student days. The prose is beautiful, elegant, nuanced, original. Nicholson wisely sets his story at the turn of the millennium, at a quiet time before everything started to go so horribly wrong in the world, which allows him to focus, like Jane Austen, on a few families in a country village, two inches of ivory.
Nicholson writes in the voice of each character and differentiates them clearly, from the neurotic, semi-literate stream of consciousness of Marion, through Alan's angry bitterness at the failure of editors to recognise his genius; from Henry's internal road rage to the calm, ordered thoughts of Miles, the vicar who no longer believes. When one of the children is the viewpoint, the prose suddenly becomes very simple, almost Janet & John. Their stories are told in the present tense, apart from the flashbacks to Laura's student days, giving an immediacy. He is kind to his characters, allowing their fundamental decency to help them through the hard times. There is only one real casualty.
Nicholson is good on the changing English countryside where every farmhouse and barn is now inhabited by lawyers, bankers and people in the media. When two ramblers ask a genuine tenant farmer for a tour of his historic barn, he terrifies them with his ferocity.
If I have a criticism it's that so many characters are introduced in the first quarter of the book that it's not at first easy to keep everybody straight.
If only more novels combined such exquisite writing with the powers of a storyteller at the height of his creativity. I had heard of Nicholson but this was the first of his works I had read. It will not be the last.
The title may at first seem clumsy but I think is spot-on: 'Secret Intensity' = We each live in our own world. We know every bit of that experience, but only part of that experience can, or is allowed to be conveyed to others. 'Others' cannot know all of us, (if anything at all sometimes) while we in turn see only a tiny fraction of what others are - even our nearest and dearest, it simply isn't possible. ('Secret Intensity' is explained in a later page of the book)
The chapters are short/It is written 'Scenically', like a film. If, like me, you are a writer, you will soon discover that this book is a master-class in how to write. (as are books 2 and 3 of the trilogy)