I hugely enjoyed reading both One Day, and Us by David Nicholls (see my blog on Four great holiday paperbacks), so had saved his latest novel Sweet Sorrow for the flight home from Cape Town to London. It was a great distraction when leaving such a beautiful country behind and returning to a UK in the throes of Coronavirus. It captivated me.
It is set over a summer when the characters are 16 years old, between GCSEs and going on to sixth-form college, and it takes place in 1997, making them just five years younger than me, so I really enjoyed the cultural references to the music, drinks and parties of the time, which I remember so well. There is something about being that age that stays with you, and Nicholls has the ability to bring it back into clear relief. It was like watching a film, with the smell of the grass, the sound of the wind rustling across the fields and the heat of the sun all rising off the page.
It was a simpler life then, one without mobile phones, where you had to arrange to meet each other by calling at one another’s houses, or ringing a landline. Charlie Lewis, the main character, spends much of his time cycling across the fields to his friend’s and girlfriend’s houses, and working at a garage which gives out an endless supply of free drinking glasses (my kitchen was stuffed full of these at the time). These spot-on descriptions reminded me of a night where some friends and I walked across the fields to a 24 hour garage four miles away, to buy cigarettes in the middle of the night.
Charlie’s family has broken up, his sister has gone to live with his Mum, and he is stuck with his Dad who has depression and is drinking too much. At that age I was in a similar situation, and Charlie does what I remember doing so well – checking the many bottles of tablets at his father’s bedside to make sure he hadn’t accidentally overdosed. Charlie is desperate to escape the responsibility and the atmosphere in the house and does so by joining a theatre company for the summer who are putting on a production of Romeo and Juliet (in my case I got engaged on my sixteenth birthday, and tried to move to another town to live with my ‘fiancé’ and his family, though I had the sense not to go through with it in the end).
As Charlie falls madly in love with the girl playing Juliet in the play, he finds a new group of friends, goes to some grown-up parties and sulks when he bumps into his Mum, her new partner and his sister in their local pub garden. The play rehearsals and his job at the garage give a structure to his days, but he dreads his imminent GCSE results, having walked out of some of his exams in a protest aimed at his parents, and finds it hard to listen to his friends’ plans of going on to college and University. This all builds to a climax, when things start to go horribly wrong for Charlie.
This is a wonderful read and took me right back to that feeling you have at sixteen of having no control over your life or your future, and need to escape your parents. It ends beautifully, with a reunion of the cast of the play many years later, and you’ll just have to read it to find out what happens.