We Are Not Ourselves is Matthew Thomas’ debut novel. Although not yet published, it has already won him a nomination for The Guardian First Novel Award as well as, reputedly, a million dollar book deal.
The title comes from King Lear :
We are not ourselves
When nature, being oppressed, commands the Mind
To suffer with the body
This is a very difficult book to review without giving spoilers.
It tells the story of Eileen Leary née Tumulty. Born in 1941, Eileen is the daughter of Irish immigrants who lone to escape her dull background and becoming part of the American Dream.
One New Year’s Eve she meets Ed Leary whose quiet scholarship and gentle manner seem to offer her all she has dreamed of. Years later Eileen thinks back to their first meeting :
‘She thought of the night they’d met, the way he’d leaned in to kiss her when the hour struck. She’d been waiting for him to do it all night. They’d been on the middle of the dance floor, surrounded by hundreds of couples. When he kissed her, she experienced a sensation she’d heard described a thousand times but always dismissed as malarkey: that everyone around had disappeared, and it was just the two of them. And now it really was the two of them, and everyone had more or less disappeared.’
The book follows the course of their marriage and so ,through Eileen’s eyes, the history of middle class America in the latter part of the 20th Century.
Marriage doesn’t bring Eileen all she had hoped for. Ed is not ambitious enough for her and has no aspiration to move away from their working class neighbourhood even as the area changes around them. Throughout their lives together, Eileen is forced to work long hours to keep the family afloat.
This is a grand , sweeping American classic which has brought the inevitable comparisons with Jonathan Franzen. It is not, however, an ‘issues’ book despite what you may read in other reviews or press releases. Thomas certainly takes a cold, hard look at the American healthcare system as ill health descends on the family :
‘ And if she got sick without benefits, she’d be looking at losing everything. She’d worked her whole life and diligently socked away, from the age of fifteen on, 10 percent of every pay check she’d ever gotten, and still her family’s fortunes could be ruined overnight because the American healthcare system – which she’d devoted her entire professional career to navigating humanely on behalf of patients in her care, and which was organised in such a way as to put maximum pressure on people who had the least energy to handle anything difficult- had rolled its stubborn boulder into her path.’
The novel is more a ‘snapshot’ of ordinary family life and the everyday heroics of individuals in the face of life’s challenges.Although as the book runs to to 640pp perhaps snapshots a misleading description. The writing is sensitive and Thomas convincingly inhabits Eileen’s mind. At the end of her marriage Eileen reflects :
‘She’d never remarry : This was life: you went down with the ship. Who was to say that wasn’t a love story?”
The final section of the book shifts the point of view to Connell, the couple’s only son. He has struggled to live up to the expectations of his mother and his father as well as to meet the particular challenges the family’s circumstances have presented. His father’s tribute to him in the final passages of the book is a heartbreaking and powerful piece of writing that had me sobbing aloud.
We Are Not Ourselves is published on 28th August. Thank you to Simon and Schuster and NetGalley for the review copy.