Illustration by Loveday Pride
After another unexpected fortnight hiatus from yours truly, I feel some of you might have forgotten about the fact that I am currently in the exotic paradise of that ethereal place: abroad. Yet much to my chagrin, I recently began to feel the pangs of homesickness. So, the only thing to do was to track down a quintessentially sardonic book that would give me the British fix I so desperately needed. And for that, I turned to a library copy of David Nicholl’s Us.
Us follows Douglas Petersen who struggles to come to terms with his wife of twenty-five years, Connie, declaring that she wants to leave him now that their son, Albie, is leaving for university. Nonetheless, the family agree to still go on the summer holiday they were planning on, their Grand Tour of Europe, as their last hurrah. Unsurprisingly, what ensues is chaos, the usual familial dysfunctionality that we all know and love, reminiscence, and self-discovery.
The writing style of this book was exactly what I needed to save me from my reading slump: engaging, evocative, and fast-paced despite its 400+ pages. Nicholls’s book, for a novel whose plot is somewhat predictable and avoids the pretentiousness so common in literary canons, is one of the most creative I have ever come across. Even his chapter headings simultaneously act as stage directions, parentheses, offside comments, or even bridge phrases between the past he is fixated on and the hell of his present.
Moreover, Douglas’s own narration was poignantly real and inherently flawed, which only contributed to its believability. In fact, it was his narrative voice that engendered the writhing ambivalence I felt towards him. Many frantic debriefs with my mum over WhatsApp were required, as if I were talking about a real person, someone so flesh and blood that had come to life from the pages of my library book and was occupying my thoughts all the time, living in my mind rent-free, as it were.
Part of my resentment was rooted in the inequality of character exploration facilitated by Douglas’s narration. While he is complicated, Connie (both as a character and as a person) felt to be reduced to a two-dimensional state – a reflection of the superficial and surface-level perception Douglas has of his wife. Don’t get me wrong, Douglas is not an actively abhorrent character. Yet his subtle self-absorption and egotism is not hidden from the readers; it is presented hand-in-hand with his good qualities. But when it comes to accepting the end of his marriage, Douglas demonstrates his fixation on appearances and his needs alone. Ever since he first met Connie, the readers get a keen sense of his awe and admiration of her. But misplaced adulation and idolatry can be harmful too: especially if you fall in love with an image of a person rather than for who they really are.
It could be said that this book is filled with clichés: the scientific-minded husband who is socially awkward and the artistic and free-spirited wife as the archetypal embodiment of male versus female intelligence and careers. Then we have the cliché of travelling to ‘find yourself’, something that Connie herself points out at the inception of the Grand Tour: ‘it was once traditional for young men of a certain class and age to embark on a cultural pilgrimage to the continent, following well established roots and, with the help of local guides, taking in certain ancient sites and works of art before return to Britain as sophisticated, civilised men of experience’. This cliché gains intertextual support from Nicholl’s love to use epigraphs taken from Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady (a novel set in Europe, like Us, that has amongst others, personal freedom as one of its key themes). In fact, this is a cliché that persists to this day, with my family and friends either instructing me to use my year abroad as the ideal opportunity to ‘find myself’ – and, believe me, I’m still looking –, or ominously foreshadowing that I will come back ‘like super changed’.
So, if we look at the Petersen family, do they find themselves abroad? Well, yes and no. Both Douglas and Connie finally come to terms with the fact that their marriage is truly over, acknowledging that ‘pretending that nothing has changed is a change in itself’. Even their son, Albie, learns more about his true self while abroad. Or rather… confirms. The fact of the matter is that none of them have actually discovered anything about themselves that they did not already know, they simply let go of their denial and faced what they knew about themselves all along. Yet, for whatever reason, it is only in the foreign environment that Nicholls has placed them in that the characters fully realise how things stand.
Maybe it’s the feeling of freshness, vivacity, and charm that all ‘abroads’ initially hold when we visit them. Maybe there’s some magical self-awareness serum in the water or in the air. Maybe it’s Maybelline. Whatever it may be, I can confirm that you realise and appreciate a lot about yourself when abroad. You are seeing new things, meeting new people, and reacting to situations that seem inherently different to all previous ones at home. For me, it’s down to the lack of a safety net. Trying to be a fully functioning adult 24/7 is tough, and when you find yourself in one crisis after the next with you and you alone as the one shouldering the responsibility, you can’t help but see a new side of yourself. But just because you’ve found that part of yourself while abroad, doesn’t mean it wasn’t there while you were home.