“Home is where I want to be/Pick me up and turn me around/I feel numb, born with a weak heart/Guess I must be having fun” – David Byrne, in his Talking Heads song This Must be the Place put the feeling of home being where the heart, and where heartache is, perfectly. Maggie O’Farrell has chosen the song name as the title for her seventh novel, evoking and encapsulating its central concerns, being heartbreak and passion, family and independence.
Daniel is a middle aged American living in the most reasonably remote location possible – Donegal. He lives there with his small children and a wife who sees no problem in firing off a round with her illicit shotgun when she spies a possible intruder on their vast property. Daniel is about to cross the Atlantic for the first time in years to join the celebrations for his father’s 90th birthday, via Belfast and his morning lecture in the university where he teaches linguistics. While his wife opens one of the 12 gates they are required to pass through on their way to the edge of the land, and his children amuse themselves while tucked carefully into the backseat, Daniel hears on the car radio a revelation that will take him from New York to California to Suffolk, to three former lives that have loose ends that need tying up.
Daniel’s wife Claudette herself has had a mysterious life pre-Donegal, which is slowly unfurled in more and more detail. Why is she so excessively skittish about the threat of trespassers? What were the circumstances that brought her spirited self and her small son to the wilds of Ireland in the first place? Who else knows she’s there? While Daniel’s story spans university dalliances and a former family he was forced to leave Claudette’s begins when she moves to London and an unexpected, exciting path opens up for her which leads first to the wonders of the whole wide world and ends with her hiding out in her own private, lonely haven.
I was first introduced to O’Farrell’s work only about a month ago, through her novel The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, and I wish it had been sooner. Her style is reminiscent of such great episodic story tellers as Kate Atkinson and Barbra Trapido, and similarly deals with epic familial and personal tales, taking in years of chance encounters, everyday life-changing decisions and shock incidents. O’Farrell has the capability and the patience to weave multiple stories together while divulging drips and drabs of the plot line, pleasurably teasing the reader with information, leaving them with no choice but to turn the next page.
While This Must be the Place focuses largely on Daniel and Claudette, supporting points of view crop up here and there, adding a really effective fleshing out of the characters, their influences and who they influence, and an intriguing look at how a person is changed over their lifetime, by their own choices and by others’. It also features inventive and interesting ways to move past the narrative style, by including a reproduction of an auction booklet and a journalistic interview of one of the minor characters.
At the core of the novel is Daniel and Claudette’s love story, which is moving and honest and believable. They meet when both are at very transitional points in their lives; Daniel is on a self-imposed mission to locate his grandfather’s ashes and Claudette is running out of patience and going out of her mind with the effort of remaining low-key and being self-sufficient without much or any experience. It, like many love stories is born out of a mutual longing for acceptance, for a family, for home and grows into something much larger. That two different people with very different lives behind them can somehow fit perfectly together is not the story – it’s that they do not perfectly fit together but together, they’re better. This Must be the Place is one of those books that takes over your life, such is its dynamic hold over you and while its hold will be fleeting the memory of it, like all good stories, love or otherwise, will last.
- Aoife B. Burke
- First Published in The Tuam Herald 15 06 16