Us written by David Nicholls is a picaresque and poignant tale of a family under strain. Nicholls speaks of his utmost surprise at being nominated for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, arguably more difficult than previous years, as the prize opened its doors to American authors for the first time last year. But the judges, including our own Sarah Churchwell, were right to nominate this extremely humorous but heartbreaking tale.
Nicholls published One Day back in 2009, but it wasn’t until a year later, when the book sold over five million copies, and was adapted into a major film staring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess, that it was classed as a publishing phenomenon. While One Day looks at how Dexter and Emma grew up together, Us’ focuses on the time after the first kiss. Nicholls explains that he was determined “not to write a disappointing follow up,” and Us is certainly not that. This is a tale of a man who is almost the complete opposite of Dexter Mayhew.
Douglas Peterson is run by logic and seems to be a somewhat unimaginative biochemist. At first Douglas may seem an unattractive character. However when he is thrown into crisis by his wife, Connie, the more spirited of the two, who announces that their long marriage has run its course and should probably come to an end, we grow to admire and understand a man who “loved (his) wife to a degree that (he) found impossible to express and so rarely did.” This crisis happens on the first page and is complicated by the family’s plans to have one more holiday together before Albie, their bolshie son, goes off to university.
This tale has beautifully woven together the issues of family life: the tension between father and son, the relationship between husbands and wives, and the differences between art and science. Nicholls states that although many claim his work to be ‘chick literature’, he thinks there are many aspects in his book that look past the disintegrating relationship between Douglas and Connie. David Nicholls explains that he wanted to write about a journey that was usually reserved for young boys to prove themselves, and come back men, but for a 54-year-old man to struggle through the trials of inter-railing. “There is no reason that the subject matter cannot be worthy of serious study, especially if you look at American fiction, where love, marriage and family are frequently dealt with by critically revered writers.” Nicholls who is now 47, with a wife and child, seems to reflect this in Us, as this tale deals with the more mature concerns of middle age, parenthood and finding a way to knit together the damage done by the march of time and what that does to a romantic relationship.
During the talk, late on Wednesday night, Nicholls spoke a lot about the influence of the high romanticism in Thomas Hardy’s novels, and especially the influence his new script Far From The Maddening Crowd (released May 1st) had on Us. In an epigraph to Us Nicholls refers to Hardy, quoting the moment Gabriel Oak proposes marriage to the beautiful, but unattainable, Bathsheba Everdean, “and at home by the fire, whenever you look up, there I shall be – and whenever you look up there I will be”… “her countenance fell, and she was silent for a while.” This neatly sums up Douglas’ perception of his relationship with Connie. He is content to be liked, and understands the inequality of their marriage. Douglas is scientific, uninspired but loyal; Connie is passionate and spontaneous, and through flashbacks telling how they met, courted and married, Nicholls movingly choreographs their awkward and unlikely dance of love.
Us is an incredibly fresh book that is heartbreakingly beautiful with a humour that will leave you laughing at inappropriate times. Nicholls has once again written a superb novel that deserved its place amongst the Longlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize.