First published on 30th June, 2013 in The Sunday Star
TEN THINGS I’VE LEARNT ABOUT LOVE
Author: Sarah Butler
THE TITLE of this book is unfortunately reminiscent of that teen rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You. It’s also misleading … or perhaps the fact that I was misled just shows that I am a romantic and sentimental fool, immediately thinking the title referred to the love between a man and woman. It doesn’t, and there are no love-lorn, star-crossed teenage lovers in it … thank goodness.
Instead, there is a girl, Alice who is searching for … what exactly? She doesn’t quite know, but it’s obvious that she’s the sort always looking for some elusive thing. When we first meet Alice she is just back from Mongolia, summoned home by her sisters to their father’s deathbed. Alice’s relationship with her family is difficult, awkward. We’re not sure why? Is it some family thing? A past event that has left it’s mark? Or is the cause Alice herself?
Sarah Butler’s initial sketch of a girl waiting for a taxi at Heathrow is deft, delicate and painfully revealing. It’s obvious that she’s lost or has lost something. Someone? The pain I felt reading that opening chapter scared me, but I was lost too … in love, at first read. Butler’s best gift, I realised as I kept on reading, is to draw the reader really close to her characters. You can feel their warmth, hear their voices, smell their skin. I loved Alice from the first chapter, as her thoughts bounced round her head, and her memories hurt her. I wanted to protect her, but I knew I was going to get my heart broken.
Alice is the youngest of three sisters. We see them, Tilly and Cee, through her eyes and they are familiar and family, and yet … there is a barrier. Is it all in Alice’s head? Cee disapproves of Alice’s wanderlust. Tilly is awash with sadness. Alice doesn’t make a complete set of three. She seems to stand apart. Their father tells Alice that he loves her … “as much as the others” and then he says he has something to discuss with here sisters, just her sisters.
Alice’s confusion, mingled with her grief, overlaid with this constant nagging doubt and fear. It’s conveyed subtly and powerfully, in every half gesture, every fleeting thought, in what she remembers, the pictures that keep recurring, the things and people and past she longs for.
And then there’s Daniel. His story alternates with Alice’s, and each chapter begins with a list of 10: What she knows about her mother, who died when she was four; what he’s frightened of; places she’s had sex; things he’d say to his daughter …
Daniel is homeless. A calm and quiet presence you can’t feel sorry for. He’s not a victim, and he’s not defiant, or defensive about his situation. He has a daughter he’s never seen, but he knows her name. He sends her letters (with no address) and he leaves her messages, made with found objects, around London. As a synaesthete, Daniel associates letters and words with certain colours, and he thinks of his daughter’s name as ice blue.
So, the book’s backcover blurb talks about fathers and daughters, and it’s easy to guess where Alice and Daniel are headed. Suddenly you know why she feels bereft and alone … that it’s more than not remembering her mother, and losing the man she’s always considered to be her dad. She’s lost something she didn’t really know she had in the first place, but perhaps she sensed that a connection was being attempted and led her to wander, in all sorts of ways, searching, looking, attempting in her own way to connect. When she finally meets Daniel, something happens to Alice. She doesn’t know why, but she doesn’t question it too much. Reading about their unfolding relationship, I feel a sense of hope and comfort, and that relief you get at the end of a long journey that you know will end with the familiar and the loved.
Butler’s debut is a graceful and elegant symphony of words that give the impression of stillness and melancholy – a pale grey sky; wet leaves on the grass; the wind whistling in the trees; and then … a sudden lifting of the spirits – weak sunshine; the sky turning gold and blue; the sharp smell of a bonfire; your heart leaping when you recognise the writing of a beloved on an envelope, his voice on the line, his smile in a crowd.
I am romantic and sentimental, and Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love didn’t have to be about lovers to move me. Love is love, no matter how it’s felt, expressed or shaped. Butler expresses that more than beautifully here.