David Nicholls – One Day

nichollsIt’s not terribly often that I read a new piece of fiction by a not especially well known writer and become deeply affected by it, but the latest example of this small number of books is David Nicholls’ One Day. I’ve enjoyed Nicholls’ work ever since I saw the film adaptation of his excellent debut novel Starter For Ten – with James McAvoy, Alice Eve and Rebecca Hall skilfully and rather brilliantly redefining what a viewer might expect from the coming-of-age romantic comedy – and even though the follow-up, The Understudy, was more schematic and obviously commercial, it still showed that Nicholls was a writer to watch and to enjoy.

However One Day is in an entirely different class altogether. Somewhat suggested by Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘We Sat At The Window’, the narrative follows the 20-year friendship of its two protagonists, the charming, feckless, somewhat weak pretty boy Dexter Mayhew and his contemporary at Edinburgh University, the rather more down-to-earth Emma Morley. There is a great mutual attraction between the two of them, first indicated by a daring introductory scene in which the two of them are shown in the aftermath of an unconsummated drunken one night stand, but as Dexter goes off into the netherworld of the London media scene and Emma is stuck in McJob after McJob while she wants to be a writer, a gradual estrangement seems to set in between them. Yet this can’t be the case…can it?

The most interesting thing about his technique is that every chapter is set a year apart, on 15th July (or St Swithin’s Day, hence the Hardy connections), which means that connections vaguely hinted at in early parts of the book come abruptly to full fruition, as the narrative moves between Edinburgh, Greece, London and Paris, amongst other places. The characters, as ever in Nicholls’ work, are beautifully drawn. Dexter is arrogant, spoilt, not particularly bright and sliding through life on a kind of public-school charm (he’s a Wykehamist, perhaps slightly atypically of the breed) but nonetheless likeable and fundamentally sympathetic. Emma, by far the cleverer of the two, feels stuck in a pointless rut, far more in love with Dexter than he appears to be with her, and eventually embracing a teaching career (cue loveless sex with the headmaster) for no other reason than she thinks she ought. And then there’s her dalliance with the world’s least talented stand-up comedian…

About halfway through the book, I was enjoying Nicholls’ writing very much, and was looking forward to the inevitable happy ending, which was being knowingly telegraphed from an early stage. I was wrong. I don’t want to give anything else away, but by the end of the book Nicholls manages to have his cake and eat it in quite unexpectedly affecting ways, leading to an ending that is simultaneously moving, touching and humane. The cynical might carp at it, and it’s certainly true that this is unlikely to bother the Booker judges, but it strengthens my belief that Nicholls is gradually establishing himself as one of the most interesting writers of his generation. You can keep your Tony Parsons and Mike Gayles; this is the real thing.

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