I first started reading Maggie O’Farrell when the lovely Georgina Moore from Headline sent me a copy of her 2013 novel Instructions for a Heatwave. I fell in love with it and subsequently read two of O’Farrell’s earlier novels (The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and After You’d Gone). Now that I’ve read her brand new novel, This Must Be The Place, I am convinced that Maggie O’Farrell is like a fine wine, improving with age. I liked After You’d Gone (which was her first novel) but found it a little unpolished; Esme Lennox was better; and her two most recent novels are even better than that. Each has been more rich and complex than the last, and it is wonderful to see O’Farrell’s writing develop over time. That said I still plan to read some more of her earlier work, because I know it will still be great.
This Must Be The Place centres around Daniel Sullivan and his family. There are multiple timelines and chapters from multiple perspectives, but don’t let this complexity put you off. O’Farrell joins everything together with a common thread and the chapters are organised in such a way that each bit of the story leads into the next, and you don’t get lost or confused. It reminded a bit of The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, in which multiple narrators present their version of the same story; here, a similar technique is used to create a rounded picture of a shared life. Daniel’s life is inextricably mixed up with those of his family members, and this web of lives is beautifully described. No one is completely alone, and everything that happens has some sort of ripple effect, demonstrating that family life is shared and nothing – and no one – is isolated within it. Even when the family are spread out across countries, their life is always connected.
The importance of family is an important theme in This Must Be The Place; the importance of family despite all the bad things. This novel is filled with imperfect relationships that felt true to life, full of ups and downs over the years and the small (and sometimes big) dramas of everyday life. Daniel’s story is slowly unfolded and developed, as is that of his wife Claudette, who, suffice to say, has had a rather interesting life. The fact that she used to be a film star and is now effectively a recluse, with the media not knowing if she is even still alive, could be a bit high concept; but O’Farrell tells her story with sympathy and enough feeling that we can see some of the complexity of Claudette and the situation she finds herself in, and although she has had a remarkable life, she still seems quite down to earth. Her story shows that when it comes to relationships and making the right choices, nothing is ever as simple or easy as you’d like it to be, and it is hard to please everyone. I admired her bravery and determination to choose her own life. I also loved the family home she creates in the wilds of Donegal – remote enough for her to remain hidden, and a wonderful place for the children to grow up. Daniel’s attachment to it (especially in the scene where he returns after having been away) is wonderful and epitomises the importance of time and place that is evident throughout the novel. He is American, and this isn’t where he came from, but it is most certainly his home. Similarly Claudette has made the place her own home, even though it is far away from her family in Paris. I suppose the point is that you must find your own place in the world, no matter how hard that might be.
This Must Be The Place is a very rich, immersive, and emotionally intelligent novel that will appeal to a lot of different readers. There is great universality here as well as the details of specific lives. I found the characters empathetic and relatable, believable as real people. Maggie O’Farrell has produced another winner, and I would recommend this book very highly.
Published by Tinder Press, an imprint of Headline, in May 2016. My thanks to the publisher for kindly sending a review copy.
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