Will Eaves - a miniature but infinite novel. neither a novel nor a poetry collection, nor a volume of short stories. It’s more of a random catalogue of 21st-century scenarios, queries, complaints and observations

Will Eaves, The Absent Therapist, CB EDitions, 2014.
 click here to read a pdf excerpt

The Absent Therapist is a book of soundings, a jostle of voices that variously argue, remember, explain, justify, speculate and meander... Sons and lovers, wanderers, wonderers, stayers, leavers, readers and believers: ‘The biggest surprise of all is frequently that things and people really are as they seem.’

The Absent Therapist is perhaps the strangest and most beguiling fiction Will Eaves, poet and formerly arts editor at The Times Literary Supplement, has written yet. It's an experimental novella that weaves together a host of vignettes and fragments into an elusive and often disarmingly funny whole. They don't have much in common apart from allowing the reader to dive briefly into the consciousness of others - other people's experiences and habits of thought (many of which feel stranger than fiction) and their commentary on same. Eaves writes with effortless fluency and charm, and despite the lack of an overarching narrative, this little book flows like a song. Animated by a Joycean love of words and oddments from the life of the mind, it's a chance for the reader to be immersed in something extraordinary. - CAMERON WOODHEAD

The Absent Therapist is a miniature but infinite novel, and unlike anything I’ve read before. It’s just achingly good.’ – Luke Kennard

‘These are gripping narratives, with intriguing shifts of register, but they are also technically experimental and daring. Each sentence is weighed, poised. The intelligence with which Will Eaves handles language is modest and rare. The absent therapist is the listening reader to whom this compelling book is a fabulous gift.’ – Patricia Duncker

"Funny how seeing someone swallow in their sleep, lying next to you, can bring a lump to your throat. You think, 'I love this person.' You can never tell them what you've seen. You tie a wish-knot inside your head."
So runs a complete paragraph in this book by Will Eaves. I call it a book for want of a more precise term. It's not a novel, even though it's described as such on the cover, and Eaves has written novels before, most recently This Is Paradise, about the highs and lows of family life. He is also a poet, which shows from time to time: that "tie a wish-knot inside your head" has definite leanings towards poetry, and tantalisingly hovers on the borders of mawkishness.
But it's one of the few moments where The Absent Therapist does so. Here, in roughly 250 sections ranging in length from one line to a page and a half, are various mini-narratives, thoughts and compressions of stories all told by different voices about different people and places and things. Some of the voices and people recur, and for a while I thought I was going to have to keep track of them all – that there was an underlying order making this a very complex work indeed.
Well, perhaps there is, but after a while I decided, as I suspect you will, to sit back and let it all wash over me instead. Reading the book in this fashion will give you a chance to appreciate the extremely deft way Eaves gives us access to other experiences, "the thrill and anxiety of knowing the difference between plausibility and the truth", as he puts it in almost the final words of the book.
You also get to savour a particularly wry, or perhaps dry, sense of humour. In one vignette we read: "He told me a wonderful story once about some man who came round for sex and said, 'Give me a blow job, then.' And Terry said, 'That's not very romantic,' and the man sighed and said, 'All right. Give me a blow job in the rain.'"
Or, describing a voicemail message, Eaves writes: "'I'm sorry we can't take your call right now,' he said, like we were both having mad sex or covered in flour or something." Why, exactly, is "covered in flour" quite so funny? Is it because it comes straight after "mad sex", as if its madness actually involved bags of flour, or because it is the kind of random, quirky image that might occur to any of us? Both, I would say, and also it's the very fleetingness that appeals. Whoosh, it's gone. Just like these paragraphs or mini-stories, which bring to mind, in their pregnant brevity, the medieval concept of life as being like the sparrow that flies in one window from the darkness outside, through the lit hall and then out into the darkness beyond the other window. You can sense something on either side of these stories, but they make sense on their own, because they have to. And yet the connections that you can't help spotting tease you with the idea of larger significance, a story frustratingly just out of reach.
There are also recurring themes that suggest larger or deeper concerns among the stories of drunks, family feuds and bizarre vox populi monologues ("It's as if a skunk went in there, shat itself, died, and the whole lot got turned into a sandwich. And there are queues, that's what I don't understand"). One I kept noticing involved the nature of consciousness, and the possibility of artificial intelligence. If you wonder what that's doing in here, I'd reply that this is the kind of thing that James Joyce's Leopold Bloom would mull over. Eaves's take on it: "Thinking is the set of mental processes we don't understand. It is the soul in conference with itself. Turing and Plato. Sounds like an Estate Agency. Or one of those try-hard butchers. Sausages by Turing and Plato. With pork and saffron." And that's it. The whole book is like someone deeply charismatic and charming daring you not to find them insane. It's wonderful.  – Nicholas Lezard

‘The pieces in The Absent Therapist often resound with truth, whether the overheard voice is that of a plumber offering to redo another tradesman’s botched job (“I won’t charge you no extra. I’m already saving you money!”), a Londoner describing spanking in a gay club, or a businessman losing his listener’s interest by spouting jargon about bridge documents, tech guys and new gen stuff. The fragments range across continents – America, Africa, Australia – as well as classes, and many of them are clearly situated ... Others are decontextualised, and often these are the most arresting, either for their meditative quality or through a poetic suggestiveness which reminds us that Eaves is a poet as well as a writer of prose fiction.’     – Alison Kelly

‘I was gripped and awed by Will Eaves’s The Absent Therapist, touching, addictive and unlike any other book.’ – Thomas Adès

I’ve never read a book like it. Like this. This is described on the cover as “a miniature but infinite novel” and I thought that was a bit naff – but no, that’s it. Although it isn’t at all a novel. But I guess calling it one, or deciding it to be some sort of novel, an anti-novel as much as anything, probably works better than suggesting it to be some extrapolation of the prose-poem ideal or just a set of very short stories. It’ll work better for sales anyway.
Will Eaves has written novels – but also poetry. And here, with The Absent Therapist, he seems to aim (and reside) somewhere between the two. These are short narratives, some just one line long, nothing over a page and a half; snapshots, overheard conversations, different voices huddling in around one another. There’s very little comfort from the huddle too …
   The observations are startling – brilliant. And so often very funny. Eaves is able to mock and celebrate the truly bizarre, unique existence of the human being; that weird thing called family. How we can’t ever truly know what any one other person is thinking, and that thinking we might is often the biggest insult if not a mistake.
   But he also allows himself space to simply make some great jokes, cold, harsh, hilarious … Sex is one of the preoccupations treated as merely a theme, albeit a recurring one. Eaves has a lot of fun using sex, or discussion of it, and around it, as background prop or foreground distraction. It’s sometimes the unspoken issue, his characters reveal so much about mindsets, their own, the author’s too – many of the pieces have a memoir feel to them – and yet sometimes we end up drawn to, or go back to revisit and understand the bits that were left out.
   There’s also a lot of talk around why we’re here – and where, in fact, we are. And it’s here, distilling heady philosophy and both dressing up and unpacking obfuscations that we get to see Eaves’ great poetic strengths and sensibility.
   … there are several read-aloud moments, many of the pieces excerpt well. But the accumulative power of this book – of taking it all in, seeing not a hair out of place, sensing a strange and powerful madness within and around the writing and selecting of these pieces, the placement – is when you really see the magic. The writing is technically flawless, vivid, cruel and wonderful. It’s so often as good as it gets.

   Whatever this is – whether novel/anti-novel or just a twisted stop-start journey of nearly short-stories – it’s a mini-masterpiece. And it contains – or is barely able to contain and control – multitudes.  – Simon Sweetman
The Absent Therapist is perhaps the strangest and most beguiling fiction Will Eaves, poet and formerly arts editor at The Times Literary Supplement, has written yet. It’s an experimental novella that weaves together a host of vignettes and fragments into an elusive and often disarmingly funny whole ... Eaves writes with effortless fluency and charm, and despite the lack of an overarching narrative, this little book flows like a song. Animated by a Joycean love of words and oddments from the life of the mind, it's a chance for the reader to immerse herself in something extraordinary.’
     – Sydney Morning Herald
‘It is always a joy to find a book that demands an intelligent engagement of the reader, and there is no spoon-feeding here … There is no obvious narrative thread or arc and the stories are all the more pleasing for that. Instead there is a drawing out of themes and motifs as each new personality arrives on the page … This collection would be a superb desert island choice – you would not get lonely with all those people to keep you company. Small enough to fit in your pocket, with enough food for thought to sustain you for weeks, and filled with the seeds of stories that you could grow into your very own forest.’  – Lucy Jeynes

“All over North America, the trains sound an added sixth in its first inversion when they blow their horns. It’s an E chord, so that would be G sharp, B, C sharp and E, in that order.” This is from one of many monologues, ranging from one sentence to a page and a half, arranged by Will Eaves into a beautifully complex choral work. The Absent Therapist is a slim book with no single plot, yet the author’s decision to call it a novel seems justified: these confluent streams of consciousness amount to a narrative in prose where every comma is vital for the flow to run as it does. The fluidity with which these miniatures merge puts you in mind of Eaves’ poetry, present in his other novels too, but never in such a distilled form.
I’d venture to say that the book reads exactly as Eaves intended it to read because he is sure it does, just as he is sure he can use the trains as a tuning fork. His ability to put the right words in the right order is not so much to do with experience – one of the novel’s narrators confesses: “Other people’s stories make more sense to me than my own” — as with perfect pitch. For things to get into focus, the author has to rely on someone else, someone close to him: “I see them because he saw them first. Writing is an extension of that.” Another possibility is to rely on the passage of time, when your own story becomes distant enough to be writable: “We might as well be writing about a different person, and in fact we are.”
Although The Absent Therapist differs radically from Eaves’ earlier, traditionally structured novels, there are some familiar motifs to it. A scene where a teenager is cornered by a gang whose leader’s “tie was worn fat and short so that it looked like a big cock” is reminiscent of The Oversight, as are birds in a South London garden. When someone’s stories are compared to “bronze miniatures: small sketches of domestic living and discontent pressed into some harder surface”, you are reminded of This Is Paradise. The thespian line — “we’re all in the gutter, but some of us are earning a fortune” – is a flashback to Nothing to Be Afraid Of. Irony has always been one of Eaves’ trademarks, and this book is no exception: “Neal and Ursula are both epidemiologists, which makes it sound like one of them caught it off the other, but they only work three days a week each, and that rather brings them down to earth in my eyes.” And when it’s time for a deeper theme to emerge, it’s quietly mixed into mundane observations, like this one, referring to the renovated King’s Cross station: “The departures are done by the lady reading the timetable with a gun to her head. She’s real, I’ve met her. I know she sounds synthesised, but she’s not.”
While Eaves’ first three novels are centred around London and the West Country, this book is more diverse. Moving from the “Wardour and Soho Academy of English” to a swimming pool in Australia, from a rare book shop in Lewes to a gold-poor brook in Emory City, the narratives follow a trajectory that may at first glance look arbitrary, but has in fact been carefully planned. The voices you hear give the impression of having been selected with some degree of randomness — “a story worth telling”, the author says, can be found where you least expect it — but their arrangement is precise down to the last dropped aitch. There are a plumber and a prince, teachers and hustlers, angry young men and batty old women. The subjects are just as varied and include computers, learning disabilities and “the point of boxer shorts”.
Computers, “too connective [and] tyrannically social”, keep cropping up in the novel as one of its themes related to emotions: real, fake, artificial and inborn. There are subtle points on the human condition and the way it is perceived. The narrators don’t pretend to have more emotional baggage than the man in the street, and the author, serving as their amanuensis, doesn’t pretend to know it all either. His recipe for understanding people is: “If you want to know what someone’s like, don’t, do not ask. Leave them be.” This is your only chance to see and hear — overhear, if you are lucky — for yourself.
One of my favourite sentences in The Absent Therapist is this single-line poem: “Where do you get your tired ears from?” It invokes a host of images, from an old man with overgrown ears to a dog cocking its ear at every rustle. It also reminds me of one of the characters in The Oversight, a choral master who has a “fine inner ear” and a peculiar taste in art, judging by a breathtaking installation in his basement. The title of Eaves’ first book refers, among other things, to the protagonist’s ability to see in the dark. The therapist of this novel’s title is an ideal listener, someone whose ears, tired though they may look, are capable of hearing things.
- Anna Aslanyan
‘One of the book’s earlier monologues refers to someone talking as if “addressing an ideal person, a sort of absent therapist”. That’s Eaves – ears pricked, mouth closed. (The book’s last words, spoken by the closest we get to an author figure, refer to the sort of understanding “which made me a writer”.) Later on in the book, another character describes their younger self in a way that recalls this ideal figure – and also the novelist as embodied by Eaves and [Rachel] Cusk; not a confessor or tour guide but a conductor, a medium, at once intuitive and impersonal, receding from the stage to let the characters and reader work things out between themselves: “I didn’t have an identity and I didn’t want one. I was neither boy nor girl, male nor female. I was just a pair of eyes, a nose, some ears. Receiving the world, the brilliant blue sky, people talking above me.”’ – Leo Robson

Because not every review can be 1,000 words long, I’m going to keep my remarks about The Absent Therapist nice and short.  Just like the novel.
Except it’s not really a novel, but a collection of disparate voices, a series of vignettes that jump from person to person.  It’s a bit like walking through a crowd of people, picking up fragments of what’s being discussed.  Sometimes you’ll circle back and pick up another snippet of the same conversation, but for the most part, all you’ll ever get is that one moment.
What’s remarkable about The Absent Therapist is how accessible it is.  While it’s obviously very experimental, and while there’s no story to take hold of, there’s a human and emotional quality to most of the vignettes that makes them immediately engaging, even if we only stay with them for a few minutes.  Take this as an example:
I don’t see the point of boxer shorts.  No support.  And the gap for your sticky wicket, why bother?  Too fiddly.  You end up groping about for the opening while your fellow man casts suspicious sideways glances.  And as my beloved put it, why poke your head out of the window when you can jump over the wall?
or this
Samuel and I heard this morning that the refugee camp in Tanzania containing our two sons, Amos and Zizwe, is to be closed.  The government is closing it and sending everyone in it back to Burundi, where we know that Amos and Zizwe will face great danger.  We think of them at this time, and we would ask that you say a silent prayer for them, too.
or this
If the vacuum were not so complete, the sound of every culture speeding by, from bacteria to late macro-sentient galactic entities, would be that of a cistern filling in the ears of the creator, the soft flare of emptiness nixed and life’s brief quelling of the silent storm, which rages on and on.
While these tonal shifts can, at times, be sudden and jarring, as Nicholas Lezard points out in his review, after awhile the prose just washes over you.  This doesn’t mean that The Absent Therapist is either disposable or just a blur of words.  Instead, as a glimpse into the human condition it’s a book best enjoyed as a meditative experience rather than picked apart. - Mondyboy

English writer Will Eaves has contrived to write a book that’s tricky to describe and even more troublesome to review. Eaves is a novelist poet but The Absent Therapist is neither a novel nor a poetry collection, nor a volume of short stories. It’s more of a random catalogue of 21st-century scenarios, queries, complaints and observations.

The book takes the form of about 150 short fictions, each seemingly told from the perspective of a different, unnamed narrator.
These narratives range in length from 1½ pages to one sentence and vary wildly in subject matter.
One minute, a geologist is grumbling about his creationist colleague (“He is in total denial that New Mexico has any kind of coastal environment. It’s crazy”). The next, we’re getting a lecture from an adherent of a New Age meditation craze (“Body Electronics is a holistic protocol with meditative technologies and nutritional programs”). And in the next story, we’re peering into the Rio Grande Gorge with a careers counsellor whose partner “works with the educationally disadvantaged and emotionally, uh, distorted on outward-bound projects”.
Some characters pop up more than once but the narratives are not explicitly connected, nor do they build towards anything resembling a plot, climax or resolution.
If this sounds like some clever but soulless experiment, it doesn’t read like one. These mini-narratives (it’s tempting to describe them as vignettes, though the word evokes a style too fussy for the elusive authorial spectre of Eaves) could be 150 beginnings to 150 novels.
Eaves has a novelist’s ear for the rhythms and repetitions of spoken language and a poet’s flair for imagery. One of the most charming and distinctly British aspects of this book is the way many of the narratives dart, as if embarrassed, from big philosophical questions to ­prosaic humour. Here is one example, from start to finish:
Thinking is the set of mental processes we don’t understand. It is the soul in conference with itself. Turing and Plato. Sounds like an Estate Agency. Or one of those try-hard butchers. Sausages by Turing & Plato. With pork and saffron.
Many of the voices speaking in this book begin their narratives mid-rant or mid-reflection, a technique that calls attention to how little we know, and can know, of strangers. Yet the tiniest snippets can be ripe with suggestion. One narrator describes the comings and goings of animals and people around a block of flats at dusk. It’s a tranquil scene with an evocative conclusion: “It doesn’t last long, this part of the evening. Two cigarettes at most.” How did this person come to measure their time in cigarettes? Is this a detail that suggests a lonely, wistful narrator? Or is the speaker just a contemplative creature of habit?
The book does hit a few false notes, with some voices less convincing than others. At times, too, Eaves shows off his gift for reproducing conversational tics at the expense of the reader. A tedious monologue is as tedious on the page as it is overheard on the train. But high points outnumber misfires. This is a very funny little book and it contains several instances of truly startling, slap-in-the-face irony. Many of these stories veer off in unpredictable directions and some are quite moving. Eaves is at his best, and his warmest, when sketching scenes of obscure human ­triumph: salvaged pride on a small-town dance floor; childhood anxieties abated in the ecstasy of a rainstorm.
Near the end, one narrative seems to strike at the heart of the meaning implied by the book’s form. The unnamed, unknowable speaker is reflecting on the search for objective, conclusive truth: “What draws everyone on is knowing that we’re denied objectivity by the limits of our perceptions while simultaneously denying that we are denied it. It’s terrifying to think that we’re responsible for what we think about the cosmos, and what we do in it, because it’s like saying there’s no one watching.”
If there’s any kind of cumulative impact to the narratives, it’s the idea of the inescapability of our specificity and subjectivity. But in Eaves’s slippery, analysis-resistant anti-novel, this is not necessarily a source of despair. This is a strange book — sometimes boring, sometimes absurd, sometimes profound — but it is pervaded by a sense of wonder. Other people are an endless source of mystery, Eaves might be saying. Grasping the mystery might be impossible, but the important part is making the attempt. - Sophie Quick

Leo Robson: How to disappear completely: the novel as an exercise in self-scrutiny: On self and voice in new novels by Rachel Cusk and Will Eaves.

Will Eaves, This is Paradise, Pan Macmillan, 2012.            

The Alldens live in a ramshackle house in suburban Bath. Don and Emily have four children: confident Liz, satirical Clive, shy Lotte, and Benjamin, the late arrival. Together they take the usual knocks, go to work, go abroad, go to university, go to pieces. Don and Emily stick it out, their strong marriage tested by experience and frustrated by love for Clive, the ardent boxing fan at odds with himself, their special child.

"Four children and I've got one of each, haven't I? One married, a single mother, a homosexual and a black sheep." Benjamin, youngest of four, imagines his mother rising from her bed with this statement; that won't happen, because she is far gone with dementia and on the verge of death. The analysis is his, and anyway, she would never have been so candid – a mother who believed that everything would be for the best, skilled in self-deception.
Here is a novel about the intimate and perilous territory of family. We meet the Alldens in Bath – a working-class family in the days when doctors paid home visits, a spin dryer was a novelty, girls wore shifts and someone could have a Pete and Dud routine on a record. Don is a picture framer; Emily teaches children with learning problems but is basically a mother. Of the children, Benjamin will be the homosexual, Clive the black sheep, Lotte the single mother and Liz the more stable married eldest. We leave them many years later, gathered together for the death of Emily in the nursing home to which she has eventually been consigned when Don could no longer cope. Will Eaves's skill lies in the shift from children to adults; these are the same people, subtly emphasised by the passage of time, by the ravages of life as it is lived. "No one changes: it is our fate to become more and more like ourselves," says Clive.
It is a challenge to assemble a cast of six (with further walk-on parts) and carry them across several decades; Eaves succeeds triumphantly. Economy is essential, and he does economy with great style, establishing people and situations with cameo scenes and sharp dialogue. In the first half, family life piles up with a series of vignettes, centred mainly upon Emily and her relationship with each child, and demonstrating the way in which she is both an exemplary mother and exasperating; and on how each child is starting to resist the remorseless clutch of family life. Liz, already brisk and self-sufficient as a teenager, will succeed; Clive will not. He is erratically brilliant, always inspiring unease: "I'm afraid it's still my home, I can't think of it in any other way," he will say in the end.
There is nothing that is exceptional about the Alldens – no suppressed narrative of violence, no simmering animosities. This is every family in a sense, and the strength of the novel lies in its creation of a narrative in which nothing happens, as it were, except the revelation of family politics, family manoeuvring, family accommodations. The events are those climactic moments of life that lie forever in the mind, each of them summoned up with deft precision: a disastrous visit by Emily to student daughter Liz, the tensions of a holiday in a French gîte.
And the marriage, core of any family? Don is blinkered, self-absorbed, frequently cavalier in his treatment of his children. It is Emily who is the guardian of family life, and the marriage has, eventually, achieved "the kind of docile mistrust that exists in many long unions". In the final section of the book, Don is flailing around, both aghast at Emily's imminent death and trying to camouflage his feelings. It is Clive who nails his father, calling him never very sympathetic but utterly dependable. (Though this can seem a touch indulgent, given that Don has apparently had affairs in the past, and now, with Emily dying, has a shockingly young girlfriend.)
Emily had apparently sunk into some kind of prolonged depression years before the onset of her dementia. She is the most elusive member of the family, drowned out by the more assertive presences of children and husband. She is practical and competent, but her personality never comes across. I am not sure that this is not deliberate – that she is, in fact, a kind of archetypal mother figure, at once the centre of the family and its victim. Whatever, she is a catalyst, prompting the moving and vigorous final section in which everyone is coming and going from the nursing home, which is called – of course – Sunnybrook.
The family novel is a bit like the old-fashioned detective story: a finite group of characters and an enclosed venue that is fingered occasionally by the outside world, with, like as not, clues as to who has done what to someone else. There is no emotional knifing in This Is Paradise; this is a family we can all recognise, in which things have not gone entirely right but neither are they horribly wrong. Clive, troubled and unstable, could be the most perceptive of the children, with his early summing up of family members as individually flawed by a collective good. In that sense, this subtly constructed novel can perhaps be seen as a celebration of family, tempered but ultimately in favour. - Penelope Lively

Will Eaves's third novel describes itself, via its blurb, as a book about an "ordinary" family. However, Eaves evidently does not see himself as an "ordinary" author. Instead of adopting a conventional narrative arc, he bombards the reader with intricately rendered snapshots of family life through the years.
The family in question consists of Emily and Don Allden and their four children: Liz (coolly confident), Clive (borderline autistic), Lotte (sensible and shy) and Benjamin (an Aretha Franklin fan, who turns out to be gay).
The Alldens live in an unfashionable area of Bath in a ramshackle house through the 1970s and 80s; Emily spends her time making patchwork quilts and irritating her daughters, while Don earns a living as a picture framer and has a series of extramarital affairs.
But it takes a long time to establish even these basic facts, because Eaves's technique is – like Emily's interminable quilting – to sew together random patches of information until a broader picture emerges.
It's an approach I wanted to like, especially because Eaves has a real gift for nuanced observation. The tension between Emily and her growing teenage daughters – never expressed but left to slither out in acts of passive aggression – is conveyed brilliantly. When Lotte spends time on the phone to her boyfriend, Emily, who is "scared by the prospect of bills", takes to interrupting conversations "as soon as possible. She did this by wandering into the kitchen, saying, 'Now, where did I put my…?'"
Eaves is good, too, at getting inside a child's mind – the best passages are reminiscent of that other unflinching chronicler of family dynamics, Edward St Aubyn. When the young Benjamin sees a shooting star on holiday in France, "He wished: for the top bunk, and maybe a small volcano, nothing too threatening."
And yet the relentless accumulation of detail left me feeling bogged down rather than properly engaged. It takes several chapters simply to understand who is who amid the barrage of names, and Eaves's overtly lyrical prose style can obfuscate rather than clarify (in the opening chapter, the grandmother Irene is described as "the elfin stoic").
By the time all the children have grown up, however, the reader's persistence begins to pay off. When Emily shows signs of dementia, the family reconvenes, each member trailing their own unfulfilled ambitions and failed relationships. Emily's infirmity is convincingly charted and Eaves is particularly good at conveying the poignant daily routine involved in caring for the elderly. "[…] the carers were still turning the wisp of a body that had cooked and sewn and laughed and walked everywhere… Off came the old gown and the knickers, and for no more than ten seconds they saw Emily as she was, the skin drawn over the rack of her ribs, the whole body a membranous sac."
But even by this stage, I didn't care enough about the characters to be truly moved. Unlike with Anne Tyler or Elizabeth Jane Howard, both masters of the minutely observed family saga, there seems to be no heart at this book's core. Crucial plot developments, such as Don's affairs, Clive's fits of aggression or Benjamin's struggle with his sexuality, are played out offstage without resolution.
Of course, this is partly the point. Real families are messy and difficult and untidy, just like this one. There are no neat narrative arcs or uncomplicatedly likeable protagonists in our own lives, so why should the Alldens be any different? It is an engaging idea, and yet while there are flashes of the novel becoming something great, it never quite lifts off. In the end, This Is Paradise was a book I admired rather than loved. -

Fiction lets us peer at other people’s families more closely than we’d dare in real life: novelists are practically obliged to infringe on domestic privacy when they prise open its guarded interiors for our inspection.
From its opening, Will Eaves’s third novel, which charts one family across several decades, seems reticent about such disclosure. No sooner does Emily Allden discover her long-dead father’s love letters than her mother Irene starts feeding their “exploding intimacies” to the fire. “Well, aren’t you clever, being inside my head,” she says, as if rebuking the reader along with her prying daughter.
This sort of self-awareness transforms the modest material of This Is Paradise into something more sophisticated. Its sibling tussles and parental worries are part of a careful inquiry into how conventional family life might conform to or resist the organising shape of narrative.
The Alldens are an ordinary family who drift along with no great momentum. They’ve no sensational back-story or lurking tragedy to jump-start their plot and from a distance they look like a gaggle of clichés: “individually flawed; but together – like a scene of tribal earnestness, a fête or a fayre, glimpsed romantically from the deep cover of the hawthorn that straggled over the garage – they were good, an ideal almost”. We first encounter them in suburban Bath in the Seventies: Don is a feckless picture-framer and indifferent husband, his wife Emily a special-needs teacher who seems overwhelmed by the growing demands of her own four children.
Eaves presents their upbringing like a slide show that clicks forward before we’ve had time to connect its images mentally. Here is stubborn, precocious Clive as he skives off a dental appointment, here the late arrival Benjamin, enthused by his first family holiday in France. That’s the oldest, independent, sensible Liz, buying her mother a pub lunch in her first term at university. And that’s Lotte, the prickly younger daughter, “ululating” about a boyfriend in the kitchen.
These scenes are packed with shrewdly observed domestic detail, from the perplexing advent of new gadgets in the house (a clothes-dryer) to the extra chores generated by impending holidays. They accumulate without resolving into a coherent pattern, making for an honest vision of daily life: as a series of disconnected events rather than a carefully plotted progression.
The second half of the novel slips forward to the nursing home where Emily is slowly weakening with Parkinson’s. Her middle-aged children gather around her death bed. Our partial view of their characters is poignantly reflected in their limited knowledge of each other. Does Clive’s unkempt adulthood derive from a boating tragedy half-glimpsed in an earlier chapter? How far can we assemble character from what the novel opts to leave aside?
Eaves writes with great honesty about the inconvenience of death, which has no schedule of its own. He’s careful about the brittle comedy of an institution so full of forgetfulness, and to its discomforting lapses of register (one carer tells Benjamin she's a fan of Ronan Keating).
In a work of such intelligent understatement, Eaves’s partiality for the grand aphorism strikes the occasional dud note: we hardly need be told that “a family needs witnesses to its adventures to make them real” or that “bereavement shows us who we are and demands a response”. The prose here is strongest at its most metaphorically suggestive. As a boy, Clive is “thin as a seed”, while a joke has an edge “like razors among toothbrushes”. Such language reminds us that family life, for all its mundane chaos, remains dense with potential surprises. -

- Jonathan Gibbs

Will Eaves, Sound Houses, Carcanet Press, 2011.

Will Eaves’ first book of poems explores several continents, moods and stages of life. Common experience – of growing up, growing older, losing a parent, being in love, enjoying the natural world in all its nearness and remoteness – provides his themes. Wherever they are set, in the Australian bush or in a West Country sickroom, the poems keep faith with the consolations that come from close observation and stillness. Well-loved authors and books appear suddenly; hair-raising anecdotes and football matches become occasions for elegiac comedy; music and domestic ritual raise ghosts.
Both formal and informal, funny and sad, these lyrical poems seek out a strangeness in the everyday: in the transformational territory of childhood and the equally uncertain adult world of grief and loss.


Will Eaves, Nothing To Be Afraid Of, Picador, 2005. 
read it at Google Books

An earthquake strikes at the heart of London, its epicenter a theatre where a lavish production of "The Tempest" has just opened. Thus the scene is set for Will Eaves's gloriously deft tragicomedy of our time. "Nothing To Be Afraid Of" is both a lament for hope abandoned and innocence betrayed, and an exquisite comic pageant of Shakespearian vitality and compassion: an incidental theatrical history, across the twentieth century, of the art of pretence; of patience, trust and loyalty; of folly in youth and unforgivable old age.

'Tender, playful and full of beautifully observed descriptions of growing up and growing old . . . with some terrific comic set-pieces the equal of anything in Waugh and Wodehouse. Now that's good writing' - Daily Telegraph

'"Nothing To Be Afraid Of "provides several coups de theatre . . . it] is a tragicomic tale of secrets, a drowned daughter, infidelity and mistaken identity . . . It is so clever, so apt, so right that you have no option but to read the novel with its built-in encore all over again. It seems even better the second time round' - Sunday Telegraph

Will Eaves's debut, The Oversight, was a new kind of gay novel, in that it was a novel first and foremost and only incidentally gay. There was no proselytising, no coming-out trauma and no over-indulgence in repetitive rough sex. Instead, it simply told the story of a shy boy growing up in the 1980s and adoring the school cross-country champion's pimply back without really knowing why.
Written from the perspective of someone born towards the end of the 60s, Eaves's novel caught the cusp of a sea change in social attitudes. His protagonist admits to a certain lingering anxiety about his sexuality, yet speculates that "mine may be the last generation to feel this way. There's talk about lowering the age of consent again, and queer visibility in soap operas means that 'gay' school kids are now healthy individualists rather than loners."
In narrative terms The Oversight was a fairly low-wattage affair, but it made a promising start and prompted the question where would Eaves go next? The answer turns out to be, as for many talented young gay men, the theatre.
Eaves's new novel leads you to wonder why there aren't more decent novels written about life on the boards. The reason could be that the theatre remains a closed shop, and actors are unwilling to blow their backstage secrets in public. I don't know who Eaves's green-room mole might be, but he seems to hit it bang on the head with this maudlin dressing-room confession: "We're a shifty lot, us pros, let's be honest ... We want it lifelike, but not too much, see. We don't like the idea that just anybody can do it without weeks of rehearsal, because that'd make us less special ... It's a contradiction, like. You say you want everyone involved, but do you? Really? 'Cus we can't all be putting on the slap, or who'd be left out front to say hello afterwards?"
Nothing to Be Afraid Of tells the tale of two theatrical sisters: sylph-like Martha, who breezes through drama school and into plum parts at the National; and her heftier elder sister Alice, who struggles to earn a crust as a London tour guide between unsuccessful auditions for TV parts as cave-women. As the novel opens, Martha is preparing to appear in a new production of The Tempest and Alice is out front, ready to review her under a pseudonym, for a no-account listings magazine which pays a few quid for submissions.
Coincidentally, as the lights dim, the centre of London is shaken by a moderate earth tremor ("Alack! We split!") though the real catastrophe is that Caliban, a corpulent former female impersonator, is drunk. Alice is urgently summoned backstage to replace him on the recommendation of her sister, who points out that she's the right size for the costume.
Once this unlikely star-is-born scenario has been established, the plot veers off in several directions, some of which are steered towards a more plausible conclusion than others. Yet Eaves succeeds in maintaining a perfectly credible tension between the two sisters, as well as between Leslie, the camp, red-nosed Caliban, and his nemesis, on-and-off stage, Prospero Bob Ladd.
The bombastic Ladd is a fine creation - tireless in his determination to arrive at the Truth of a Scene, which as Eaves notes, means: "please listen to me". He crucifies the leading actor further by having him pop up on Desert Island Discs to muse that "Prospero represents the K2 - dare I say the Everest? of Shakespearean roles", while basing his performance on the ritualised movement of Japanese Noh theatre. "The world of hospital situation comedy", Eaves remarks, "seemed unthinkably remote."
Yet the book is far from an all-out-attack on slightly overweening theatrical types - its satire is too gentle and its tone too affectionate for that. You are left with the impression of someone who loves the magic of the stage, yet is equally fascinated by the mundanity of its creation.
The paradox is captured perfectly when Alice steps out to save the day, and is suddenly reminded "how unlike anything resembling art the whole business was of standing up and shouting things out. How sweaty and makeshift the illusion seemed from the inside. Porphyry and jasper? The pillars were MDF wrapped in sheets of marbled vinyl. The fountain's granitic casing was Styrofoam. Glue, sawdust and fabric conditioner flavoured the air."
Nothing to Be Afraid Of is ultimately twisted to a rather tortuous conclusion, but remains full of incidental pleasures: a flustered meteorologist being bullied by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight; or the wry observation that the bronze plaques on the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Walk had slid off on to the grass "where they more than ever resembled landmines". And it's to Eaves's credit that he follows an unassuming gay novel with a story about heterosexual relationships in an unassumingly gay environment. Nothing to Be Afraid Of confirms Eaves's discovery that there's no reason to be ashamed. -

Will Eaves' debut, The Oversight (2001), was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award. It risked being overlooked, however, by virtue of having a plot that is extremely hard to précis. Eaves' treatment of a teenage boy grappling with his family's past and the emerging desires that will mould his future was sophisticated and subtle. While frequently very funny, The Oversight was also strikingly dark - fittingly so, as much hinged on narrator Daniel's discovery that he can see without light. The novel was a brave and remarkable first offering.
Will Eaves' debut, The Oversight (2001), was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award. It risked being overlooked, however, by virtue of having a plot that is extremely hard to précis. Eaves' treatment of a teenage boy grappling with his family's past and the emerging desires that will mould his future was sophisticated and subtle. While frequently very funny, The Oversight was also strikingly dark - fittingly so, as much hinged on narrator Daniel's discovery that he can see without light. The novel was a brave and remarkable first offering.
Nothing To Be Afraid Of matches its ambitions, while signalling a move on from its author's immediate world. Suitably for a book with a staging of The Tempest at its centre, it has a strongly fantastical feel. The twinning of Shakespearian performance and contemporary London might suggest affinities with Angela Carter's Wise Children; Eaves' protagonists, Alice and Martha, are also sisters.
But Carter's vaudeville turn had something of the stage ham's showiness. Wise Children deliberately invoked the energetic felicity of the comedies. As her title suggested, Carter followed the Bard in offering a generous verdict on its subjects. By contrast, Nothing To Be Afraid Of shares with Shakespeare's last play a stubborn cloudiness; a keenness not to simplify or neutralise extremes in human behaviour: ungoverned desire, betrayal, revenge. Its characters are capable of either brutal or mendacious conduct, or the harsh, if apt, observation of their own and others' shortcomings.
This last quality is a necessary presence in any theatre career. It also illustrates something about the capital that Eaves brilliantly documents: its merciless capacity for, and tolerance of, toughness in all events. "A total liability? Rude and alcoholic? Some people only have the constitution for failure," as one character summarises a friend. There are echoes of the mordant truthfulness of Dickens' Our Mutual Friend, or of Balzac's fine study of literary ambition and failure, Lost Illusions.
A fond reconstruction of British popular culture offers an adept comic counterpoint; this is frequently a very funny book. Meanwhile, a key plot development concerns the unimagined consequences of a mockingly dismissive review of the Tempest production - in The Independent. In the case of his novel, Eaves has nothing to be afraid of. This deft, absorbing book more than confirms the promise of The Oversight. Eaves is a master of the dark arts of city fiction. He is to be read, relished - and watched very closely. - Richard Canning

Here is a tale of two sisters, bound by professional envy and sexual jealousy; a father and son who are not quite what they seem; of a brilliant, drunken cabaret artist and his tortured muse; of a mother with two daughters who hate her and one who died young. It goes without saying that everything is presented with a side order of secrets.
Here is a tale of two sisters, bound by professional envy and sexual jealousy; a father and son who are not quite what they seem; of a brilliant, drunken cabaret artist and his tortured muse; of a mother with two daughters who hate her and one who died young. It goes without saying that everything is presented with a side order of secrets.
Alice, plump and over-aware, should have been an actress. Instead, it is her sharp, knowing younger sister Martha who first attains success on the stage. One evening, while Martha is playing Miranda on the South Bank, an earthquake, the most powerful the capital has known in almost a century, strikes London. As a symbol for what is to come the earthquake is a fair enough image, though its actual significance is never quite explained. However that may be, events do seem to take a surreal turn.
Leslie, the actor playing Caliban, has a fit of fatigue and emotion and Alice takes his part for the second act. And this is a play she was actually meant to review. Notwithstanding her new professional involvement, she gives a particularly nasty notice to her sister, with deleterious results. Her private life takes a fillip when Nick, playing Ferdinand, takes a shine to her. When it is revealed that he is the son of a theatrical agent who also happens to be the bosom friend of her father, you know you're in for a deal of skeleton rattling. Absurd as all this might seem, Will Eaves steers his gaudy galleon with assurance and flair. Only at the end does it hit the rocks.
There's no denying that the various relationships are hard for anyone unbitten by the murder-mystery bug to follow, but for much of the time you are content to be swept along. The reason for this lies in the author's prose. Eaves boasts a style of extraordinary delicacy and acuity: the sentences are perfectly cadenced, the various narrative voices eerily convincing. He has a seductive way of using one image to amplify another. Thus, a trainer at an acting school is "ill with fitness, sun-dried almost". Characters that could so easily have become mannequins from an old property drawer are wholly realised. Leslie, the ageing theatrical queen, reveals in his memoir a tenderness absent from his speaking voice. Alice, similarly, could have been merely an embittered paranoiac; instead, she is alive with childlike, though misguided, benignity.
For all its implausibilities, however, the novel seems to stand until the last 50 pages, at which point it totters. At a purely forensic level, the ending does indeed tie up the loose threads; in narrative terms, however, it fails. The least colourful of his many threads has been picked out as the central one. And the trouble with bad endings is that the disappointment they engender spreads retrospectively. I suddenly realised that the various tragedies, however powerfully evoked, were just too many for the reader to be moved by, that there were jarring notes when Eaves moves into dialect, that the psychological exposition was sometimes ponderous and unnecessary, and that this very knowing narrator was frustratingly reluctant to share his knowledge.
Tales of familial terrors are best told in a style that does justice to the enormously complicated strata involved; murder mysteries, similarly, must be narrated as simply as possible, while magical realism depends on its ellipsis and suggestion. But the combination here makes a ménage à trois, and such arrangements have a way of imploding sooner or later. - Murrough O'Brien     

Will Eaves's polished new novel has a fault line running through it. Nothing To Be Afraid Of starts as a wry and compressed account of sibling rivalry: Alice and Martha are young actresses in south London trying to make their names on the stage. The surface of their lives is rendered with scrupulous verisimilitude as the hidden story of their differences and ambitions snakes through the early pages. But a third of the way in, the book changes course.
Eaves introduces a catastrophe that could have come from the pages of a pulp novel: an earthquake, "equivalent to 1,000 tonnes of TNT being set off, or the yield of a small nuclear weapon", hits the centre of London.
Is Nothing To Be Afraid Of a work of apocalyptic fiction, a stab at a disaster novel? Eaves, whose first novel, The Oversight, was shortlisted for a Whitbread award in 2001, laughs at the idea when we meet at his flat in Brixton. He had "wanted to write a destruction scene". It is hard to argue that London is prone to earthquakes - the most powerful tremor in the region was recorded in Colchester in 1884 - but he thought that the spider's web of shallow faults in the London basin justified the development in the plot.
When an earthquake hit England, in the autumn of 2002, he had written five chapters of the novel. Eaves felt clairvoyant: the Midlands quake, with its epicentre in Dudley, was given the same intensity rating - 4.8 on the Richter scale - that he had dreamt up for his fictional threat. His assurance was short-lived. Close to finishing the book, the novelist went for lunch with Richard Fortey, author of The Earth: an Intimate History, to discuss the possibility of seismic activity in the capital. "Mr Geology", as Eaves dubs the Natural History Museum professor, "thought I was completely barking."
Whether or not the spectre of an unsuspected disaster hangs over Londoners, Eaves's earthquake is convincing. The novelist has a good time playing with this material and his embellishments add another layer to the complexity of the plot. As he explains, he had wanted to write a book "about being shocked out of complacency and about being brought up short, being forced to consider one's own stance - which is no bad thing". For the novel's two protagonists, the earthquake offers an abrupt and irrevocable break with the past; its ripples are felt all the way to the final pages of the book. The earth certainly moves for Alice, who ends up in bed with a "witty, impish", dark-haired actor on the night of the quake.
In a work of considerable comic vitality, Eaves pauses now and again to take aim at the self-deception and ego of actors. In one particularly jaunty section, a pastiche of an insipid magazine profile, Martha describes the busy life she has led since she took on the part of Miranda in The Tempest: "It's a gruelling schedule, which means I have to get the eating right: orange juice, cereal, toast and honey in the morning, a sandwich at lunchtime and something else before the show. Miranda can easily come across as a milksop, but I'm trying to be more hardline about her, so it's lots of hearty food and fresh air. The riverside walk from the Design Museum to Hungerford Bridge is one of my favourites, and you can grab a crab salad and some Orvieto along the way."
"That came after I'd read something in Metro," Eaves explains. "I just laughed out loud and thought, 'Really, this is too good to pass up.' These stupid things that people say." But Eaves, who used to live with an actor, makes common cause with Martha and Alice: "I wanted to write something quite fair. The trouble is, actors in fiction are largely caricatured. That whole world is a rich source of comedy, but it's quite hard as well if you're at the struggling end of the spectrum. The work is intermittent and even when it's good work, and you might be almost on the West End stage, you're actually getting paid £250 a week. You can't even afford to get to the sodding theatre and back."
Alice, with her "lank hair and footballer's shoulders", struggles to find work. Her career highlights - including a Pick-of-the-Fringe mention in The Scotsman in 1989 - are limited. She supplements her income by writing theatre reviews for listings magazines: What's On pays her £50 for a piece. Alice's mother, a permanent worry-wart, wants her daughter to concentrate on being a critic. "Can't you do more of that?" she complains. "The other's so hard."
Like Alice, Eaves has a second life, as arts editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Is it unfair to see Alice as some sort of authorial proxy? Has Eaves encountered similar resistance to his creative work?
"Alice is quite like me in many respects," he concedes. "Or rather, if it's permissible for an author to say this, I'm very fond her." But he has never felt pressure to stick to the day job: "I think it's a common response of parents and sometimes of friends when people you know and love do things that are perceived to be risky or insecure. People are very proud of you for doing it, they're intensely proud, they want to be supportive. But, of course, if they care about you, they're also anxious that you don't run out of money, starve, or become too dispirited."
Eaves talks about "the 'two-lives' experiment in the book" - "the critical practice and the primary practice, the acting thing, that Alice has going on" - and it is clear that his own writing life is split: "I find it quite difficult to even think about the idea of trying to be a writer and working at the TLS. The people are very supportive but the environment is critical.
"There are a vast number of books that come into the office that are necessarily discarded. The banter and the chat and the liveliness and the humour of the place is partly dependent on your sense of the fact that books are what you love, but they are also just books. They come and they go and you move on.
"To come back from that critical environment, which is quite hard-nosed in a way, to come back and think, 'Oh no, I've got to try to make my own book, I've got to try to find space for my own words,' also having just edited other people's all day, it's very hard. You just think, 'Maybe this is terrible rubbish. Maybe this is really, really bad. And what right do I have to say my piece? Who'll be interested anyway? And will I just make a fool of myself?' "
These "attendant anxieties", as Eaves describes them, are unnecessary. He is a fleet and funny writer and Nothing To Be Afraid Of is a success. It was written, like his previous novel, while he held down a full-time job - he has been at the TLS for almost 10 years. To find more space for his own words, he went down to working four days a week earlier in the year. So far, his Wednesdays off work haven't been very productive.
"The joy of not writing," he says, "needs to be expounded on by writers more often." -  James Francken    
Will Eaves, The Oversight, Picador, 2002.
read it at Google Books

A flawless fictional debut from a great young writer, shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award.

Despite the narrator's supernatural powers and a plot that hinges upon the secret compartment of an antique writing box, the achievement of Will Eaves's first novel lies in its recognisable coming-of-age detail and delicate attunement to domestic compromise. The narrative shuttles between 1980s Bath and present-day south London with an almost soapily realist texture, catching Daniel Rathbone as gawky, isolated teenager coming to terms with his sexuality and as reserved, seen-it-all twentysomething facing up to family secrets.
Eaves touches the constituent parts of Daniel's schooldays - those ubiquitous "boluses of masticated paper and crisp-scented saliva" known as flob-bombs, the "perfect displacement activity" of Rubik's Cubes and the teacherly cries of "find a partner and get out your rough books" - with a confident, exact hand. Isolated from the ranks of the effortlessly cool by his cleverness, gangly physique and unspoken feelings for Gregory Bray, on a field trip to a disused railway tunnel Daniel discovers another point of difference: he can see in the dark. However, having bestowed his diffident subject with superhero powers, Eaves seems unsure what to do with them: though Daniel's glimpses of what is usually veiled make for nice stylistic effect and fertile metaphorical contrast with his emotional blindness, the overall impression is haltingly novelistic. The only optician who would shrug off a visual freak of nature with the words "if it ain't broke . . ." is a compliantly fictional one.
The box of secrets presented to Daniel on his 25th birthday - once a favourite possession of his dead father, who has slipped into it a clue to the family mystery from which everyone averts their eyes - also sticks out like a sore plot device. Daniel's attempts to jettison this symbol of the past are thwarted by insistent coincidence: when he leaves the box at a municipal dump it is instantly reclaimed by his passing neighbour, who brings it straight back up the garden path.
By contrast, Eaves orders the structural intrusions of the past with understated ease, intersplicing a memoir of Daniel's parents' youth with moving letters from his dying father (counterpointed by his mother's anxious spin on events and loaded response to his coming-out visit: a model of maternal subtext grasping at words like "adult", "sensible", "level-headed"). Eaves traces Daniel's own teenage progression with wit and warmth, from the desperate early need to belong - his night vision switches on when he cruelly rebuffs Carey, the nerdy tagalong friend who is closer to him than he could want or guess - to the later secrets and ties of forbearance and attraction. The novel catches perfectly the cusp of maturity at which self-consciousness becomes self-awareness, spurned geek morphs into dignified individualist and Daniel can at last tell Gregory he wants him and receive the easy riposte, "Not with the zits on my back, you don't". Why, Daniel wonders to the cheerily bisexual Craig, now that the embargo has been lifted on such subjects, did he never get to join in the group masturbation sessions? "Probably because we thought you was a poof."
These sections shine with such convincing immediacy that the constant jumpcutting to the 1960s or the present forces our attention from the book's emotional heart. Adulthood becomes an arena for Eaves to tie up his themes, so that the reappearance of Carey, beautiful, rich, but with a white stick, forms a frozen contrast with Daniel's bedraggled second sight. Craig, now a pilot, meets his end testing virtual-navigation technology while Carey shows off his Gibsonesque goggles ("half VR, half AI") developed to orient the blind within a preprogrammed landscape.
Eaves relates his tableaux in an intensely visual, at times surreal slow-motion close-up, so that a lunch with Daniel's mother takes in the "comma of elastic saliva flexing away in the corner of [her] mouth" and the "squeezed-out sports car" reflected on the underside of her spoon, the style mimicking both Daniel's visual acuity and his reluctance to focus on the messy relationships played out before him. "Anxious to get to the point, I missed it," he admits of his teenage years; although Eaves tries too hard at times to hammer his material into a stilted elegance, his warm appraisal of fallibility, motive and mishap makes for a promising debut. - Justine Jordan

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

al-Ḥarīrī - An itinerant con man. A gullible eyewitness narrator. Voices spanning continents and centuries. Featuring picaresque adventures and linguistic acrobatics, Impostures brings the spirit of this masterpiece of Arabic literature into English

al-Ḥarīrī, Impostures, Trans. by Michael  Cooperson, NYU Press, 2020. An itinerant con man. A gullible eyewitness narrator. Voices spanni...