Parallel universes are a mainstay of science fiction, but increasingly they seems to be creeping into the mainstream. Jo Walton, Claire North and Kate Atkinson have all produced phenomenal Sliding Doors novels that have (to a greater or lesser) degree have wormed their way into the nation’s consciousnesses. The latest arrival in the literary parallel universe corner is The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett. This has been pushed heavily, being a Waterstones book of the month and has been riding high in the charts.
The Versions of Us is a reality three-way that has very little science and large amounts of human interaction. At first I struggled. I was expecting cleverly dovetailed realities or a little science fictional trickery a la Walton or Atkinson, but there is nothing at all. The book is pretty much three separate stories with chapters that interleave. The action branches out from a single incident, and we watch as three differing realities unfold.
As this is a story about ‘true-love’, and in two of the realities this love is thwarted, once by chance and the other by painful decision, I found myself settling on one particular narrative as the one I was rooting for. Barnett however is cleverer than that. Borrowing the idea that the “course of true love never did run smooth”, she demonstrates how things might go wrong even when you’ve found the person of your dreams, and how adversity might bring out the best in some, whilst overwhelming others.
Whilst there is little interaction between the narrative strands, as the novel progresses, we build up a deeper picture of its characters. In a conventional novel we tend to only see the players from one angle. We follow them through one story. Here Barnett builds a three dimensional picture by showing how her creations might react to similar situations in differing circumstances. As the novel builds to its conclusion it becomes increasingly satisfying. Upon finishing I was bereft that there as no more to read.
This book is perhaps not good fare for worriers or those not satisfied with their lot. It’s hard not to read The Versions of Us and wonder if it may have been possible to end up somewhere else. You may find yourself pondering missed opportunities and unexpected forks in the road. The flip side to this is that the book can be seen as empowering. You may not be where you want to be, you may have a talent that is being wasted, but it’s still with you. It’s never too late to apply yourself and change things around.
Whilst this is essentially a romantic novel, Barnett has a pragmatic view towards romance. This is not a tale of lovers destined to be together at all costs. It shows that there are many paths to happiness and that human beings desire companionship above all else. Wherever you are, there’s almost certainly somebody nearby waiting for you.
Whilst there was little of the literary trickery I was expecting, The Versions of Us is no less an accomplishment than the other novels I’ve mentioned here. It’s layering and juxtaposition of real-lives builds into a solid rendering of love, loss, happiness and the ability of the human spirit to keep moving forward. It’s a novel that contrives to be more than the sum of its parts. Each of the three stories is interesting enough, but in weaving them together Barnett has created something special and well worth reading.
Many Thanks to Rebecca at Weidenfeld and Nicolson for sending me a copy of this book.