Us by David Nicholls

There’s a chapter in Us by David Nicholls when the narrator stops and retells his story from the point of view of the other key characters. It’s an interesting bit because it clarified something that was in the back of my mind while I was reading the novel, which is how rare it is to hear this kind of story, the story of the breakdown and rebuilding of a marriage and a father/son relationship, from the particular point of view of the narrator of Us.

The other perspectives retell the novel as a coming of age tale, and as an epic star-crossed romance, which are both far more familiar forms of this particular story. In these alternate retellings, the narrator is cast as the stifling, traditional father/partner figure, preventing the child/spouse from living out their lives in complete happiness and freedom. Of course, the real story is always a bit more complicated than that, and that’s what makes Us such a compelling read.

Us takes us through the story of a marriage from the perspective of the first person narrator, Douglas Petersen, in a series of snapshots from throughout the years, moments like the first date, the wedding, having children, while simultaneously detailing the attempts of Douglas in the present to save his marriage and relationship with his son on a ‘Grand Tour’ around Europe. Douglas is the traditional father/partner in many ways; a scientist who chose to switch to the private sector to make more money, lacking the imagination and edgy excitement of the ‘artsy crowd’ that his wife is part of, discouraging his son from pursuing his artistic dreams in favour of a more practical career. And he adores his family.

The novel provides a different insight into the mind of this familiar character, who we are used to resenting or dismissing as boring and colourless, and this sense of subverting expectations is intensified by the direction that Douglas’s character takes during the climactic latter half of the novel. The premise of the novel appears to be that there are many sides to every story, and we are made to feel sympathetic towards Douglas and grow to like him, but the further ‘twist’ emerges when he finally acknowledges that he had been more hurtful than he wished to remember. One such moment is when he realises that he had called his son stupid, despite earlier denying it, which is a devastating emotional beat in the middle of a comedic passage.

In addition to the largely multi layered and interesting characterisation, it is important not to forget that David Nicholls writes very funny books. His distinctively wry treatment of emotional subject matter is everywhere in Us, from the slightly satirical tone of Douglas’s narration, a man who describes taking items from the breakfast buffet as an act of rebellion, as well as the truly amazing jokes made by the characters throughout (Macadamia, anyone?). Nicholls’ masterful command of situational humour is in full display throughout, given greater opportunity by the idea of a conventional English tourist wandering around Europe, a subject beloved of British comedy writers for many years.

The distinctive thing about Nicholls’s books for me are those moments of over the top craziness, when a character does something outside the bounds of what’s considered ‘normal’ behaviour, usually created by heightened emotional intensity and a moment of personal crisis. This was certainly evident in Us, despite the greater maturity of the characters compared to the university students and young professionals in his other novels, although the greater emotional maturity certainly made the characters more bearable than in some of his other novels.

I would definitely recommend this book, and look forward to Nicholls’s next novel.

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