Maggie O'Farrell's book was so intense and had so many unforgettable moments that I had to take little breaks to recover. The story is told from multiple points of view so that various characters have their moment to present themselves (or be presented). The chapters may be long or short and the time varies from the mid-80s to 2016, but I didn't have a problem adding up all the bits to make a clear tale, well, lets say multiple clear tales that built toward the main one. It is set primarily in Ireland, but ranges from New York to California and beyond.
Rather than recounting the complex plot, I will quote passages to remember what I love about the book with enough explanation so they make sense.
Daniel, father of "the baby" is telling of a family driving in rural Ireland where the mother opens a series of gates they must go through to get to a main road.
This triggers some preverbal synapse in the baby: his neurology tells him that the sight of his mother's retreating back is bad news, that she may never return, that he will be left here to perish, that the company of his somewhat scatterbrained and only occasionally present father is not sufficient to ensure his survival (he has a point). He lets out a howl of despair, a signal to the mothership: Abort mission, request immediate return.
"Calvin," I say, using the time to retrieve my cigarette from the back of the dashboard, "have a little faith."
Daniel, on this same drive, hears a quote on the radio from a woman he had known well decades earlier who was referred to as the late Nicola Janks. This makes him face a terrible possibility that he had some responsibility for her death and he is shaken: "To all appearances, I am a husband, a father, a teacher, a citizen, but when tilted toward the light I become a deserter, a sham, a killer, a thief. On the surface I am one thing, but underneath I am riddled with holes and caverns, like a limestone landscape."
In the coming days he tells himself he will not uproot his life to try to learn what happened to the woman, "I am not going to drop myself down, like a speleologist, into those holes and caverns and start digging around. I have to focus, have to stop trembling, slow my galloping pulse."
And a bit later the author uses this metaphor again to illustrate Daniel's situation: "I am treading carefully, as if the ground beneath me is not as firm and sure as it looks, as if it is riddled with underground rivers, as if at any moment a sinkhole may yawn open under my shoes." And of course he doesn't focus and the sinkhole opens.
I love the chapter that belongs to the teenage "California girl" Phoebe. She was six and her brother Niall was 12 when Daniel flamed out of their lives. She says
Niall has herbal tea because that's the kind of person he is. It's a flower sort, not berry: he says berry teas are an "abomination," which is one of my favorite Niall words. He's taken out the tea bag, and the tea is so weak it's barely tea at all. Have I mentioned my brother is the coolest person in the world?
A grad school housemate of Daniel named Todd tells us about the "late Nicola Janks" in her heyday as a young academic who had "written books on gender and society, which were published by mainstream publishers and sold in actual bookshops, not just academic ones."
She stalked about the corridors and quadrangles in a swooping black cloak thing, leaving behind her a trail of fascinated and awed undergraduates. Todd had always thought she looked like a crow, albeit a rather glamorous one.
We first meet Marithe as a child, then encounter her near the end of the book as she moves into puberty.
Certain things she'd always loved…felt suddenly hollow, distant, staged. It was if someone had dimmed the lights, as if she was viewing her existence from behind a glass wall.
And her body! Some mornings she woke and it was as if lead weights had been attached to her limbs by some ill-meaning fairy. Even if she had the urge to walk across the paddock to feed the neighbors' horses–which she hardly did anymore, she didn't know why–she wouldn't have the energy, the sap in her, to do it.
Marithe asked her mother whether the sense of being inside your life would come back.
Claudette had put down her book and thought for a moment. And then she had said something that made Marithe cry. She said: probably not, my darling girl, because what you're describing comes of growing up, but you get something else instead. You get wisdom, you get experience. Which could be seen as a compensation, could it not?
Marithe felt those tears pricking at her eyelids now. To never feel that again, that idea of yourself as one unified being, not two or three splintered selves who observed and commented on each other. To never be that person again.
On a personal note I recall becoming upset as a young kid (under 10, given the house we lived in), when I first had that feeling of seeing myself from outside myself. And I remember my father assuring me this was not a problem.
It makes me uneasy to leave the larger implications of the book unmentioned, but, ah well, there it is. It's all I can do not to share more of these lovely individual insights.
Maggie O'Farrell, This Must Be the Place, Knopf, 2016, 388 pages (I read the Kindle version). Available at the UVa and public libraries, and from Amazon.