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According to a note at the back of the book, one of the inspirations for David Nicholls’s fifth novel, Sweet Sorrow, was the final song on Pulp’s 1994 album, His ’n’ Hers. Entitled David’s Last Summer, the track, which is largely spoken by Jarvis Cocker, is based around a jaunty chorus: “This is where you want to be/ There’s nothing else but you and her/ And how you use your time.”
It’s a beautiful paean to young love and teenage lust, the whole thing prevented from falling into schmaltz by the air of melancholy that hangs around it, the recognition that such loves do not last, that all about is “the sound of summer packing its bags and preparing to leave town”.
After the surprisingly grownup reiseroman that was the Booker-longlisted Us, Nicholls has returned to the tone and register of his multimillion-selling third novel, One Day. Sweet Sorrow is a book that does what Nicholls does best, sinking the reader deep into a nostalgic memory-scape, pinning the narrative to a love story that manages to be moving without ever tipping over into sentimentality, all of it composed with deftness, intelligence and, most importantly, humour. We may think of Nicholls as a writer of heartbreakers – One Day prompted many poolside tears – but he has always been a comic novelist and Sweet Sorrow is full of passages of laugh-out-loud Inbetweeners-ish humour.
It’s June 1997 and the students at Merton Grange comprehensive have just finished their GCSEs. Our hero, Charlie Lewis, is the quietest of his gang of four – Harper, Fox and Lloyd are the others – who swagger about the school, rowdy and faux-thuggish: “To not be a dick; this was the great rite of passage we had yet to pass through.” Merton Grange serves a small town in Sussex “too far away from London to be a suburb”. Charlie is more poetic and artistic than he cares to admit to his pals; for boys like him, the “only acceptable talent was in sport, in which case it was fine to strut and boast, but my talents lay elsewhere, very possibly nowhere”. Sweet Sorrow is a love story, but it’s also about growing up, about leaving home. Charlie “didn’t hate our town, but it was hard to feel lyrical or sentimental about the reservoir, the precinct, the scrappy woods where porn yellowed beneath the brambles”.
In the empty period between the end of term and the announcement of results, Charlie works part-time at a garage, where he initiates a scratchcard scam to help ease the financial burden on him and his pill-popping, depressive father – Charlie’s parents have just been through a door-slamming divorce. When he’s not working, Charlie rides aimlessly around on his bicycle. On one of these rides, he comes upon Fawley Manor – “a typical home counties mansion” with “the orangery, the rose garden, the rockery and something called the grotto…” He almost literally runs into a girl his own age, Fran Fisher, who is at Chatsmount, the local independent school. Charlie is smitten, but then “never in my life”, he tells us, had he “been more primed to fall in love”.
Fawley Manor is owned by an ageing thespian couple, Bernard and Polly, who each year invite their nephew, Ivor, and his partner, Alina, to put on a Shakespeare play in the grounds using local students as cast. The company is known as the Full Fathom Five and, as Charlie notices as he escorts Fran up to the house, it is peopled not just with gilded private school youths, but with several arty types from Merton Grange. The Full Fathom Five are staging Romeo and Juliet, are short of cast members and need a Benvolio. Fran is Juliet and, initially reluctantly, Charlie agrees to join in. This is a novel about the galvanising effect of art, about the plasticity of adolescence, about twin seductions – Charlie falls for Fran, but also for Shakespeare.
One Day’s success was largely down to Nicholls’s expert manipulation of time. Here, too, he shows himself the master of narrative chronology, giving us a series of proleptic leaps forward in Charlie’s life, playing delicious games with questions of dramatic irony and inevitability that arise from the juxtaposition of theatrical and novelistic time. Charlie looks back with a subtle admixture of humour and regret on the intensity of his summer of love for Fran – that “brief interlude between anticipation and despair” – and on the anchor the play provided in his drifting adolescent life, the way the summer shaped the man he would become. Nicholls is increasingly making his name as one of our leading screenwriters – his adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series was one of the best things on telly in recent years – but here he proves that he can still pull off that most rare and coveted of literary feats: a popular novel of serious merit, a bestseller that will also endure.
• Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls is published by Hodder (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
Source: The Guardian
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