Come Again by Robert Webb

Published by Canongate Books

It takes someone with a big imagination that slants towards the absurd to pull off a book that contains looming philosophical questions, time-travel conundrums, bereavement, all-consuming love, Russian criminals, spies and mayhem across the streets of London all under one roof, but somehow Robert Webb does it. For the most part.

Kate Marsden has just lost her husband to a brain tumour that, it turns out, had been lurking in his cranium since before they met on their first day of college, 28 years before. Nine months on from his death she’s still beside herself with grief, and has made the decision to end it all; first quit her internet security job by revealing damning secrets she has uncovered about one of their major clients then take herself off to bed with a bottle of vodka and a few bottles of pills. It’s the 10,000th day since she and her husband fatefully met and she’s come to the conclusion that she can’t go on without him.

Part One of the three parts cleverly and sympathetically examines bereavement and the anger, despair and self-destruction that can often go with it. It does it with a humorous touch; Kate is a whip-smart woman with a witty edge, and the world seen through her furious point of view is both amusing and in the high definition that can happen when suddenly everything comes into focus. Her boss, a former classmate, is boorish and insecure, but on the right side of caricature. Her house, full of discarded pizza boxes and wine bottles, used plates and glasses, recently co-occupied by at least one curious mouse is still, in all its filth, her safe haven.

If Part One is sepia-toned Kansas, Part Two is Oz in glorious technicolour. Kate goes to sleep with her action plan ready for the morning, and wakes up in 1992. The grappling with what’s going on feels authentic (insomuch as fictional time-travel can), as Kate adjusts with glee to her 18-year-old body, and considers the implication of being slightly rude to a caller to her dorm room when originally she was timidly nice. Kate comes to the realisation that this may be her chance to save Luke, her husband, and sets out to inform him about his slow-growing tumour in the time that she has.

1990s nostalgia aside, what follows is a fun and astute what-if scenario. What if you went back to the first day you fell in love, with the benefit, or hindrance of all that you know now, and find that things aren’t quite as you remember them? There are nice findings – hindsight revealing the beauty of her former self, which she’d denied self-consciously at the time – and not so nice things, like being irritated rather than charmed by Luke’s uninformed waffle about prestige authors on his English course.

Webb shines at characterisation, bringing to life figures in the book with ease and authority. Like Kate’s boss, the characters with bigger personalities avoid parody, and instead radiate warmth and wisdom (her father) and cocksure naughtiness (her friend Kes). While his plotting is admirable there is a hell of a lot going on; it’s like there are three books in one, like a scenario and characters given in a writing class and given wildly varying treatments by each writer when their turn comes to pick up the story.

Part Three is where the first two merge, and it’s certainly a departure from the big questions posed earlier. It would be giving away too much to delve into what happens, but let’s just say that MI5 has far too much power and authority to defy those elected into power. It’s a weird turn of events, with a chase scene that feels transcribed from a script, but the interest already invested in the characters and story more or less excuse the change in tone. Come Again is an ambitious and largely successful fictional debut from actor Robert Webb, and is a fast-paced adventure that benefits from its more literary leanings. Too much, perhaps, is wedged in, but it’s still a worthwhile read for all the big questions posed and amusing observations made.

  • First published in The Tuam Herald on 13 05 20.

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