A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
It’s a powerful, almost violent word – and one you don’t come across all that often any more. People have a ‘fling’ or an ‘affair’, or ‘a bit on the side’ or they ‘play away from home’ – and all too often it can sound almost innocuous, shading to comic:
“Oh men. What can you do with them? They just can’t keep it zipped. It’s the selfish gene, you know …”.
Attach the word ‘adultery’ to it however and it takes on an entirely different quality. The full biblical weight descends.
It’s a word that vaguely puzzled me for years, because I couldn’t think what it had to do with being an adult. Finally, in an idle moment, I got around to looking it up and – of course – it shares its linguistic roots with ‘adulterate’, not adult. Mystery solved.
The Art of Losing is not so much about adultery, as its consequences. Lydia is already married to the unexciting but decent Martin when Nicholas enters her life and they embark on a liaison which is to devastate not only their lives, but the lives of the people around them as well – even those not yet born. It’s no spoiler to say that when the book begins, Lydia is dead – we’re told that on page 1.
Her daughter Louise sets out on a personal quest – to find and confront the man she holds responsible for her mother’s death and – more specifically – for the pain caused to herself and her beloved and devoted father, Martin. To do so, she infiltrates Nicholas’s family.
The story is told by both Louise and Nicholas in two separate narrative strands. Louise’s strand is set in the present day and Nicholas’s starts in 1983. Very gradually, the two strands converge until they finally merge in the closing chapter.
It would have been easy for such an emotionally charged subject to come across as melodramatic, particularly in the hands of a first-time novelist, but in fact it’s a quietly and tightly written observation of human foibles and failings. Giving Nicholas his own voice means that we see him as a fully-rounded person – not just the dyed-in-the-wool villain of the piece that haunts Louise’s imagination. Similarly, we understand that Louise is by no means even-keeled herself, having nurtured a hatred of of her mother’s lover for so many years.
There are no token characters in The Art of Losing – all the major players are well-delineated and there for a purpose. Nor is there a pat ending. It’s left very much to the reader to decide how much damage has been done – or repaired – by Louise’s obsessive pursuit of Nicholas.
If I have one criticism of the book it would be that the moment when Louise finally reveals her true identity to Nicholas is a little melodramatic – in stark contrast to the rest of the book, which is low key and beautifully observed.
It’s the only criticism, however. From the very first pages you’re drawn into the narrative and into the lives and histories of the protagonists. You come to care about them, and to want to know what happened, why and how it will all end. Rebecca Connell has a gift for simple but arresting images and turns of phrase:
‘You can’t escape me’, she said.
In the years to come I would wake again and again from dreams that played back those few seconds to me so exactly, so perfectly capturing the sad certainty of her voice … … … She spoke those words as if she somehow knew how true, in a manner that I could never have guessed at, they would turn out to be. In the unfriendly dark of those moments, I often wondered whether they were a premonition.
The Art of Losing is an extraordinarily mature and accomplished debut novel from a young writer who has a disquieting understanding of the games people play.
Fourth Estate. (An imprint of Harper Collins). 2009. ISBN (HB):978-0-00-730036-5. ISBN (PB): 978-0-00-730058-7. 231pp.