Review: The Versions of Us, Laura Barnett

So.  The word on the street (and by street, I mean Waterstones) is that this book is this year’s The Miniaturist.  I did not read The Miniaturist.  I did however decide to give this one a shot and am very glad I did – I already picked it as one of my Favourite Books of 2015.  Described as Sliding Doors meets One Day,  The Versions Of Us tracks two people throughout their lives, throughout three different trajectories depending on three slightly different turns of events.  As students in 1958, Eva rides her bike down a lane and in one version, her bike hits a nail and she falls, so Jim steps forward to her aid.  The two of them meet and quickly fall in love.  In another version of their lives, Eva misses the nail, cycles on past and stays with her original boyfriend, aspiring actor David.  In the third telling of the story, Eva does meet Jim but obstacles spring up in their way.  The same approximate cast of characters, three possible stories.

This has been done before – in last year’s Life After Life, Ursula Todd was born, lived, died and lived again, revealing a different self each time.  Going further back, Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World again examined how far one’s life can really be changed by one simple action.  Yet still, although Barnett is not the first to examine the question of the multiverse, The Versions Of Us is written with real sensitivity and warmth so that whether at their best or indeed at their worst, one cannot help but feel a sympathy for the characters, a hope that no matter how far their paths diverge, they will still find their way to that elusive happy ending.

Eva is the novel’s true heroine – whether she is unhappily married to David or indifferently married to David or even just contentedly involved with someone else, she is the most consistently moral character.  Jim is a nice man, a sweet man but under pressure, his flaws become exposed and although the version of him that was a young man seemed so much of a preferred option to David’s arrogance, other incarnations are less appealing.  In many ways, The Versions Of Us seems an argument for the notion that true love never does run smooth – although the first version of Eva and Jim’s love story seems to be going so well, the reader knows to expect doom.  And doom appears.  Yet indeed, where would be the story in a life where nothing ever goes wrong?

Laura Barnett (c) The Guardian

On the whole though, this felt like a novel without true villains.  Even the self-obsessed David was allowed redeeming qualities.  There was a definite sense of just ordinary people reacting to events and trying their best.  Still, the women definitely come out of this better than the men.  Eva’s angelic mother Miriam reveals that she fled Germany because Eva’s biological father did not want the baby – I chose you – while Eva’s mother-in-law Judith (in the versions of her life where she marries David) brings over food and apologises for her son’s behaviour.  One of the few constants across the three narratives is Eva’s friendship with Penelope who provides a running commentary on the state of Eva’s relationships.  Barnett’s afterword features a tribute to her own adored step-grandmother (and indeed she has written a whole article about her) and I had a feeling that this was a novel written by a woman who truly likes other women.

The Versions Of Us raises a number of different questions about fate, our senses of self but also equality issues within relationships.  Eva’s success in her writing appears to overshadow Jim’s attempts to establish himself as a painter, then in her marriage to David, his acting career causes her to fade into the background.  It is only when Jim is alone that he appears able to achieve true artistic triumph – even Ted, one of Eva’s tertiary love interests, notes that he has been unable to find a lasting relationship until later in life because he has been so focussed on his career.  Is it ever truly possible for two partners to achieve creative success simultaneously?

A big point though that I felt about this novel was also how we ourselves change beyond recognition.  Reminiscing about childhood with her brother Anton, Eva is caught by how little she recognises him.  Although there are many character traits which remain constant across the three narratives, Eva and Jim do become different versions of themselves based on the lives which they have led.  This is something that I think is incredibly true – I look back on my life, a fairly short one so far, and can’t help but think of how much I have changed.  What would the five year-old with the big fringe who vowed never again to wear a dress make of the woman in her mid-twenties who essentially earns a living answering emails.  Even more recently – I myself am constructing a new version of myself having left teaching last year.  A big part of my identity used to be my job so it has been a big change in my life, but one that has made me very happy.  I have seen friends change their outlooks based on circumstance, situation but more than anything due to their relationships – not even just in the case of abusive or overpowering relationships, but the people we love have the ability to alter our whole lives.

Throughout this book, there is that wafting sense of ‘meant to be’ – Eva says to Jim at one point that surely he does not believe in fate but yet the reader is left unsure.  Jim’s most celebrated painting is entitled The Versions Of Us and while another character dismisses the triptych structure as ‘spot the difference’, he feels offended as he means it to symbolise ‘the many roads not taken, the many lives not lived’.  That feeling of ‘what if’ is common to us all – my mother met my biological father while waiting for a train one day in Scotland while he was backpacking over from Australia.  Were it not for that one chance meeting, their paths would never have crossed again and I would never have been born.  I find it impossible to imagine a version of either of their lives where they would have stayed together but it seems so strange to realise that I owe my existence to such a random event.  Yet still, odd though it may seem, that very poem The Road Not Taken itself comments on the fact that we can never truly know which events in our lives have truly made all of the difference.  Perhaps there are not many possible paths for our lives, but just the one, the only one – does that make things easier or actually more terrifying?

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The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett
Published by Hachette UK on May 28th 2015
Genres: Fiction, General
Pages: 416
ISBN: 9781474600187

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3 thoughts on “Review: The Versions of Us, Laura Barnett

  1. What an interesting review, and of a book I wasn't aware of! I will certainly track it down and some of the others you mention. Thanks for the insight in to your own life too, as you know from some of the comments I have made these can often add to views of certain books.

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