Review: The Versions of Us, Laura Barnett

What if you had said yes . . . ?

Eva and Jim are nineteen, and students at Cambridge, when their paths first cross in 1958. Jim is walking along a lane when a woman approaching him on a bicycle swerves to avoid a dog.

What happens next will determine the rest of their lives.

We follow three different versions of their future – together, and apart – as their love story takes on different incarnations and twists and turns to the conclusion in the present day.

The Versions of Us is an outstanding debut novel about the choices we make and the different paths that our lives might follow.

What if one small decision could change the rest of your life?

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Sometimes it’s difficult to pinpoint a book, to find the words to explain to others what it’s like, what it’s about. With The Versions of Us, however, I had no such problems. Think One Day meets Sliding Doors and you can pretty much envision exactly the premise of Barnett’s debut novel. (Ok, I thought of this one myself and some swift googling has revealed I’m not the only one, so specifically does the novel fall into genre.) Set between three possible realities, The Versions of Us tells the story of Jim and Eva’s relationship from 1958 to the present day, following the ‘what could have happened’ across the parallel universes.

Yes, this kind of thing has been done before, but I really liked the premise and was excited to read the book.

In many ways I thought Barnett did a great job of pulling the threads of all three versions together. In each possible reality there were recurring themes – the resentment caused between Eva and Jim’s careers and successes, ideas of familial duty and loyalty, infidelity and long-term love – and they were all manifested differently in each version as each story developed and evolved differently. It was equally beautiful and haunting to see how certain factors and themes can follow you through your life, no matter where you go or what you do.

There were a couple of things, however, that I didn’t think worked as well. As much fun as it was to have each version taking place on the same date, it began to get really confusing to remember what was happening in each version as the chapters revolved through the three stories. There were so many times when I had to stop and try to think what had happened in the previous version before I could continue reading. And because the themes were so similar and repeating differently in each story, I got lost in what was supposed to be happening where and how and with who. (Don’t even get me started on the children’s names – three stories with three different sets of children with different names and different parents = absolute confusion.) This made the whole thing a little disjointed for me, and it was a shame to have to ruin the reading flow to try and remember each time.

Also, being the hopeless romantic that I am, I became a little disillusioned with Barnett’s motives in the middle, and I started to feel as if Barnett’s only message was that nothing lasts, not even a love you thought could last a lifetime, and that infidelity and relationships crashing and burning was only inevitable. By the end, however, I realised that maybe Barnett isn’t just writing about romantic love, but about all the other kinds of love too, and especially of forgiveness. A real pervasive feeling of reality echoes across the book – Barnett doesn’t write about some kind of hopeless, mystical and magical love, but of an everyday love which can grow and die and evolve, and although a part of me was disappointed, I do understand what she was trying to say, even if the soppy part of me longed only for idealism.

The Versions of Us started off and ended well. I got a bit lost in the middle and I think Barnett did too, trying to weave together too many strands of events and ideas across different times and universes. What I loved though was the concept that every action and decision we make sets us on a path of infinite possibilities, and that somewhere out there are a million versions of us and our world, and we will never get to meet them. Except maybe if we invent time travel, or go through a black hole or something, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish.

To quote T.S. Eliot, as Barnett does:

Footfalls-echo-in-the-memory

I couldn’t have put it better myself. No really, I couldn’t.

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One comment

  1. Sounds like an intriguing book – I’ll have to add it to my to-read list. Thanks for reviewing!

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