It seems fair to say that the complexity of human relationships has figured prominently in Will Eaves’ writing since the publication of his debut The Oversight in 2001. Whether the relationship in question is familial, sexual, platonic, or something else even more vague and complex, Eaves has a direct and at times merciless talent for getting under the skin of the everyday and teasing out the minutiae of his protagonists’ emotional lives, and in This Is Paradise, a novel that focuses on one family – Emily and Don Allden and their children Liz, Lotte, Clive and Benjamin – it is a talent that serves him well.
The first half of the novel, ‘Bellevue’ begins with the birth of the youngest Allden child, Benjamin. Emily is very much at the heart of this half of the novel, navigating the emotional dramas of both her husband and her children as they move through childhood, into adolescence. Eaves shifts focus between characters with a narrative eye that is gentle and fair, picking out just enough details in the thoughts and actions of each to convey the essential elements of their personalities: Clive’s haughty and isolated intelligence; Liz’s vitality; Lotte’s emotional tempestuousness; Benjamin’s thoughtful introspection.
There are numerous well illustrated moments of family life in ‘Bellevue’ that made me smile because they evoked memories of my own family, in particular a holiday that begins with ‘the jigsaw-puzzle challenge of loading the car’. Even the moments of argument and tension comforted me strangely, in their familiarity. In the middle of an argument between Emily and her eldest daughter Liz, for example, is the following:
‘[Emily’s] love for Elizabeth overpowered her. Everything her daughter said was unfair. Everything was true.’
The Alldens are both familiar and strange to one another in a way that is essentially true of most families. And throughout the first half of This Is Paradise, just as she acts as the centre to the narrative, Emily acts as the stabilizing factor to the other protagonists, maintaining balance.
In the second half of the novel, in which Emily declines into illness, this changes, a shift that is extremely jarring and unsettling. There is no longer any sense of Emily as present, and the balance of the first half of the novel collapses, both in the equilibrium between the Alldens, and in the rhythm and structure of the narrative. At first I was almost angry about this. I resolved to highlight it as my main criticism. I wondered what had possessed Eaves to cleave such a schism between the first and second halves of the novel. Later, though, having finished the book and thought about it a little, I realised how essential this chasm at the heart of the novel is to its power.
If the move into the novel’s second half were not jarring to the reader, it would be a significant detriment to the emotional truth of This Is Paradise. The destabilisation of the narrative reflects the destabilisation of the family. The removal of the figure of mediation and balance throws the family into crisis, and tensions run high as the Allden children try to support their ill mother and their struggling father. The differences between them are magnified and change in quality, losing something of the affection that underpins them in ‘Bellevue’. Through his use of narrative structure and form, Eaves weaves the shock and confusion of loss into the very fabric of his writing. The reader, disorientated within the text, struggles to acclimatize to the radical changes in the characters just as the characters struggle to acclimatize to their own changed circumstances. Taken as a whole, the result is a novel of great poignancy and power, illustrating and exploring experiences which many writers have approached in many different ways, and finding a unique and original way to do so.
Any Cop?: The sadness of the second half of the novel definitely comes as a shock after the lighter first half, so be warned that it isn’t exactly a cheerful read past this point. However, it is a very human story, and each character is handled with the care that marks a really good writer. Eaves is one to watch for the noughties.