The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

versions

Receiving rave reviews when it was published in 2015, Laura Barnett’s debut novel is billed as love story in the same vein as One Day and Life After Life. I was interested to see how Barnett had constructed a ‘Sliding Doors’ concept in novel form. I think I was expecting some clever literary trick, but actually this is a straightforward retelling of two lives, just in three different versions.

The  main characters are Eva and Jim. The novel begins in 1958 when they are nineteen and both studying in Cambridge. Jim is walking down the same street as Eva is cycling, rushing to a supervision and already late. Version One brings them together when Eva runs over a rusty nail and Jim stops to assist with her punctured tyre. In Version Two there is no nail but a dog who she just manages to avoid hitting. She sees Jim but does not stop. In Version Three the dog causes her to swerve and fall off her bike, Jim to the rescue.  From that moment we know that each life will be different.

Taking place over almost sixty years, there is a lot of ground covered. Barnett jumps years ahead at a time, with each version having a short chapter before we’re moved on again. It felt a little stilted to me because of that. I struggled to get into the characters as we spend so little time with them in real terms. Some time periods had versions that were very different, but others were brought together through a shared event. Having to read three accounts of a birthday party, for example, got a little confusing while also becoming tedious.  Often I forgot which version I was reading, and there are some characters who only appear in certain versions. Eva and Jim’s various children totally lost me – even when they have the same parents in two versions they didn’t have the same name since they were born in different years.

I enjoyed the idea of this book more than its reality. Perhaps Barnett would have been better to follow only two versions and give us a deeper insight into the lives of Eva and Jim, who only by the very end became real in my head. Most of the peripheral characters were very flat and I would have liked to feel more pain for Jim when one of his daughters gets into trouble, but I just didn’t care enough when she’d barely been in the novel. Sliding Doors worked so well as a film because it was so easy to follow. Only two Gwyneths (and a handy haircut to help differentiate them) and one consistent break in the narrative to split them. I was already wondering by the end of the first set of chapters why Barnett had decided to create three different reasons for Eva to meet/not meet Jim – why use both the nail and the dog?

As a debut novel this was an ambitious undertaking, and well-written. Lots of people rave about it, and I can understand why, but I couldn’t fall under its spell.

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