Have you ever thought about how your life may have been different if you’d made another decision about something? What if you’d never gone on that holiday? What if you’d never moved to the City? What if you’d never met that person so important to you now? The possibilities for each of us are endless and it is this thought-provoking and emotional topic that Laura Barnett’s debut novel, The Versions of Us, brings to life so beautifully.
Without wanting to take any of the magic from this book by saying too much, it tells the story of two people, Jim Harper and Eva Edelstein from their first encounter at Cambridge in 1958 where they are both young students. Over the course of the novel we see the path of their lives as they move through all the stages of life, from youth to old age. This is one of the book’s most powerful aspects (and for me, something which makes it resonate much more than, for example, Sliding Doors, which I have seen referred to in some reviews). You genuinely grow to have a true sense of who these people are and how their experiences shape their lives over so long. I certainly became quite attached to Jim and Eva after spending so many decades with them and it certainly gives you perspective on your own life, whatever stage you have reached, whether 18 or 80.
The other beautiful and clever aspect of Laura’s story is her decision to not just tell their story, but to tell three possible versions of it, within which the lives and destinies of Jim and Eva (and, as a result, of those around them) take different turns, some only slightly altered, others much more drastically so. Through these three paths of the book, the reader has the opportunity to walk through 60 years with Jim and Eva, down three different routes and the effect is an incredibly moving one, especially the further through the story you go.
It may sound confusing, but it really isn’t, which is a testament to Laura’s skill as a writer. The honest telling of the journey of ordinary people’s lives is something each of us can connect with and due to Laura’s ability to create such grounded characters (not just Eva and Jim, but those around them, who all feel very believable and well realised), The Versions of Us so quickly draws you in and captivates you to the end.
Although all three versions are split out throughout the novel, the events in one may still happen in the next and rather than repeat them, they instead build on each other, to lay the stepping stones we travel on through this couple’s life. So as well as reading effectively three versions, as a reader you still have a very real sense of an overarching journey.
I was lucky enough to go to a reading by Laura, at my wonderful local bookshop last week, West End Lane Books in North West London (always worth a visit for browsing or for one of their author events) and I was surprised to hear that she actually wrote the book as it is, jumping between the three versions, after waking up one morning with the idea fully formed in her head. I had wondered if she had written each one separately and then split them up and was impressed to hear that wasn’t the case and her description of plaiting the versions together is a brilliant way of describing the experience of reading it. Apparently some people choose to read each one as a whole, but I’d certainly recommend reading the novel as you find it, as part of its magic is the fluid movement from one path to the next and back again. I did ask her which version was the hardest to write and she said that was Version Two, which varies more from the others and she said trying to keep Eva and Jim apart was difficult, as they were like magnets wanting to come together.
I’m sure everyone will have a different response to the book, but personally, I took from the story that there are always different choices that could be made in life, with differing consequences, but that some things in our lives are always going to endure in some form. No matter the deviations along the way, the important people and events will hopefully remain. It’s this sentiment that I felt on reaching the end of the novel, as I said goodbye to Eva and Jim myself and as a result, found this to be a very moving and quite an emotional read. I honestly cannot recommend it highly enough!
The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett is published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson and available in all the usual book stockists. It will be published in the USA in May 2016 (but I’d urge American readers to get a copy another way so as not to have so long to wait)! The website for the wonderful West End Lane Books (with details of the upcoming author events is here or follow @WELBooks).