A love triangle in the age of AIDS from a British actress and author (A Year of Marvelous Ways, 2015, etc.).
In the first part of this slender novel, set in Oxford in 1996, we meet Ellis, a 45-year-old widower who works the night shift in a car plant. Ellis has yet to recover from the death of his wife, Annie, five years before. But there’s more to his melancholy: Ellis, we learn, was forced by his father to work in the plant and abandon his hopes of becoming an artist. There’s also the matter of Ellis’ intense relationship—emotional and, for a time, sexual—with Michael. The two met as boys of 12 but became estranged as adults. The second part of the book, set in London in 1989, is told from Michael’s point of view. It opens with him caring for a former lover, G., now dying of AIDS—vividly and harrowingly depicted. But as it turns out, Michael considers Ellis the love of his life. The narrative shifts back and forth in time—not always smoothly—with secrets spilling out in the manner of the television show This Is Us. The book is at least partly about recovering from profound loss. But the writing is overwrought (“He was aware of her aliveness, the brutal honesty of her desire”) and the narrative too dependent on illness and accident. A copy of a Van Gogh painting—won by Ellis’ mother in a raffle—plays a pivotal role in the proceedings, yet the chatter about painting and art is mostly banal. So too the descriptions of the natural world, with abundant references to snow in the first part of the novel and cicadas in the second.
Though it has its affecting moments, the book tries too hard to be searing and soulful.