Bleak House – Arms Wide Open by Tom Winter

arms‘They sit in silence at first, the two of them sharing in a holy communion, the transubstantiation of mere chocolate into feelings of love and security.’

It’s always nerve-wracking picking up a new novel from a writer when you’ve loved their previous work. Tom Winter’s Lost and Found was one of my novels of 2013. I even got my book group to read it and they all loved it too. How would Arms Wide Open compare, could it possibly live up to my expectations?

Probably not.

In tone and humour the books are very similar. Winter is very good at highlighting the absurdities of life. Trite though it may be to say it, his observations are funny because they’re true.  What made Lost and Found for me, is that the whole cast of characters had a perfect synchronicity.  They worked together in unison, separate notes combining to make a beautiful ensemble piece. Arms Wide Open has a wider cast, and there a few characters are slightly off key. Both novels, I think, are very English affairs and the introduction of two American exchange students in Arms Wide Open didn’t quite work for me.

The overall tone here is different too. Lost and Found is bittersweet, and ultimately redemptive. Here there is redemption of sorts, but the story is more bleak and the finale is more bitter than sweet. So on finishing Arms Wide Open, I wasn’t left with a warm fuzzy feeling that I had with L&F. Rather than ‘life throws curve balls, but good things do happen’, it’s more ‘life’s a shitty mess and then you die’; probably forgetting who you are.

So because I didn’t enjoy Arms Wide Open as much, it’s tempting to dismiss it as an inferior novel. After all, total enjoyment is a pretty good qualifier for measuring the quality of an experience. But what if it’s me? Maybe I don’t like the book as much, because it didn’t offer the redemptive assurances I was looking for? If that’s the case, maybe it’s a better book. It reflects my own life, my own fears and worries; it’s not the pages of a book I’m staring into, but an abyss. This stirring up of negative emotion might make it a stronger book.

OK, the abyss thing was overstating it, but here’s why I found the book discomfiting.

When reading Lost and Found I was 39. 40 was only a few months down the way, but not yet reached. Despite being not overly worried about this milestone, it did hit me quite hard when it finally arrived. Now, I’m 41. Closer to 80 than to birth (as my 8 year old helpfully pointed out this week). There is suddenly a feeling that my best years are behind me. I’m probably not going to set the world alight now (see my Stoner review).Things ache more than they used to. Nights out, are not only rare, but also require about 3 days to get over. The world is not so much an oyster but a mountain of dirty washing. My marriage, whilst not over like Meredith’s, is after ten years and three children starting to calcify. There is the sense, as Winter puts it, that,

‘…it’s like life is made of concrete or something and I’ve already set. No one tells you when you’re young that your life is going to harden and solidify, That you wake up one morning and find it’s turned to stone and that you’re not actually some architectural marvel, you’re a pavement.’

This is wonderfully, beautifully spot on. It’s also bloody depressing. In addition to picking out my deepest neuroses directly from my brain, Winter backs this up by writing about degenerative illness. As any regular readers of my blog (should there be any) will know, my Dad has Parkinson’s. A comparatively slow degenerative illness compared with Jack’s, but the idea of personalities being subsumed by illness is one that strikes a chord with me at the moment. The third strand of woe that Winter tugs at is the parent-child relationship and he pretty much sides with Philip Larkin. As my children grow up and the teenage years loom ahead of us, books like this strike terror into my heart. Winter is a fine chronicler of the agonies and ecstasies of family life (with heavier focus on the agony).

All in all it’s perhaps not surprising that I came out with idea that I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I’d hoped. Whilst I didn’t get my redemptive resolution of Lost and Found, on reflection I find it impossible to know which of Winter’s two books is the best. What I do know if you want someone to display the absurd side of life, whilst dealing with some serious themes, and if you want to have the occasional belly laugh, you could start by reading Tom Winter.

Many Thanks to the team at Corsair for sending me a copy of this book. 

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