Richard and Judy Review This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell
"Maggie O’Farrell is one such; a novelist blessed with the ability to hold her readers in the palm of her hand – in this case for nearly 500 wonderful, character-filled, event-charged pages."
Some writers are good at storytelling. Some are very good. And some are timelessly gifted, blessed with the ability to draw their audience in around the cave fire and hold them spellbound until long after the flames have flickered and died.
Maggie O’Farrell is one such; a novelist blessed with the ability to hold her readers in the palm of her hand – in this case for nearly 500 wonderful, character-filled, event-charged pages. She does it with heart-catching writing that arches across time zones, continents and decades. Here’s an example – a key character’s seemingly everyday observation to his wife as he stands looking out of a window.
‘I have the strangest feeling in my legs.’ They’re his last words – next moment he’s gone, dead in an instant with a brain haemorrhage aged 66. That’s in chapter one – and we’re off, because it’s a significant death; the man with the funny feeling in his femurs is our narrator Danny Sullivan’s grandfather.
Daniel is a fashionable Brooklyn-born linguist, and something of a media whore. ‘If you’ve ever listened to a radio programme about grammatical shifts or the way teenagers usurp and appropriate terms for their own subversive use, it will probably have been me who was wheeled in to say that change is good, elasticity is to be embraced.’
The admission is simultaneously amusing and revealing: we will discover that Daniel is ruthlessly and charmingly self-honest and confessional with us. In the story that follows he makes no excuses for his lousy decisions, no omissions for his sins.
There are plenty of both.
"This Must Be The Place is all about love: O’Farrell is superb at isolating the moment one of her characters realises a relationship is not just coming to an end, but is truly over."
Daniel flies to Ireland to collect his grandfather’s ashes. This leads him to an utterly remote country road where a woman is changing the tyre on her broken-down car, her stuttering son by her side. Daniel helps the boy speak more fluently – he is a linguist after all – and the grateful mother invites him to their remote farmhouse.
The woman, Daniel quickly realises, is a mega-Hollywood star, the breathtakingly beautiful French/English actress Claudette Wells. She disappeared a few years before, bolting in the middle of her latest movie and running away from her controlling Swedish lover/director. She’s been hiding out in remote County Donegal ever since, a recluse and eccentric. She fires shotguns at anyone she suspects of being paparazzi and is initially deeply suspicious of Daniel.
But they become lovers and have children. Daniel ‘reads’ Claudette almost to perfection. He forgives her all her trespasses – ‘the key to life with Claudette is knowing that her default setting is overreaction and outrage,’ he calmly notes.
O’Farrell’s story flips backwards and forwards in space and time, introducing us to a rich cast list – chapter headings include ‘Lenny, Los Angeles, 1994’ and ‘Rosalind, Bolivia, 2015.’ But don’t be put off – as you turn the pages, you realise that everything is inextricably and satisfyingly interlinked.
Ultimately, This Must Be The Place is all about love: O’Farrell is superb at isolating the moment one of her characters realises a relationship is not just coming to an end, but is truly over. ‘Do you think,’ Claudette asks Daniel in bed, ‘that we might have reached the end of our story?’
Thankfully, that’s long before O’Farrell reaches the end of hers.
What a complex cast of characters you have assembled here, Maggie! Are they all fully-formed before you begin, or do they come to life on the page as you write?
I had the idea of writing about a reclusive actress several years ago, after witnessing a very famous Hollywood star pursued by the paparazzi in Soho, London. She and I ended up in a ladies’ loo together and I’ve never forgotten her air of hunted, desperate misery. A novel about Claudette, a woman who escapes such a life to live in rural Ireland, came to me almost on the spot.
Daniel, the American academic who goes on holiday to Ireland and runs into Claudette at the side of the road, appeared in my mind as I was taking my kids to school one day. Daniel doesn’t at first realise who Claudette is – he can’t work out why she looks familiar – but they fall for each other and even¬tually marry. The novel opens when they have been together for about ten years.
I knew this was going to be a big book, in terms of both its word count and number of characters. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that there is no single truth about any event: everyone will have their own perspective, their own interpretation. The epigraph, a line from Louis MacNeice’s ‘Snow’, captures the vertiginous, dizzying multiplicity of just one man’s perception.
This Must Be the Place is, at its heart, a portrait of a marriage, in all its messy and sustaining complexity. The reader hears from both Daniel and Claudette, and also from various children, friends, family, employees, acquaintances, ex-lovers. The message in the novel’s structure is, I suppose, that marriages do not always involve two people but instead an enormous and labyrinthine network of people.
One of the best things about being a novelist is that you are permitted to look at a person or a situation from multiple viewpoints, from different moments in time. You have imme¬diacy and hindsight, all at the same time. If only life were the same. Our understanding of an event will naturally alter over time, as we get older, as we move further from the event itself. I think we undergo a constant reassessment of our pasts and of our selves, all the time: our minds are always sifting and puzzling over conundrums from our own lives, and from others’. This Must Be the Place is a book about such reassessments: Daniel is forced to confront something he would rather forget. He hears, on the radio, an interview with a former girlfriend and, as a result, he dives into his past without realising that this act will destabilise his present.
This story crosses continents and time zones. You manage it beautifully but were you worried at making it too complex, and if so how did you resolve that?
Thank you! It’s a relief to hear that it works. I did worry, espe¬cially during those 3am moments, that the structure and geog¬raphy might be asking too much. I do believe, however, that a writer should never underestimate their readers: they are a lot cleverer and more willing to make great leaps of faith and under¬standing than some think. It’s your job, as the writer, to make those leaps possible, credible. It’s crucial never to talk down to readers: they will rumble you straight away. I hate it when I am in the middle of a book and I sense that the writer isn’t trusting his or her audience and is slipping into over-explanation or spoon-feeding. Nothing makes me toss aside a book faster.
With this book, I had an urge to experiment with the form of the novel, to push its boundaries, to see what might be possible within its remit. So there is a chapter with footnotes by an eleven-year-old boy, there’s the transcription of a news¬paper interview, there’s an auction catalogue of movie memorabilia which tells the story of Claudette’s rise to fame.
You have such a distinctive voice. Where do you think it comes from; how much are you influenced by the writings of others?
I read all the time – always have and always will. To be a writer, you must first be a reader. One book that influenced This Must Be the Place was Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. I’ve always loved the divergent, overlapping, sometimes querulous voices of his story-telling pilgrims. It’s a breathtaking feat of polyphony. If I ever felt stuck or unsure while I was writing this book, I would go back and re-read some of The Canterbury Tales and Chaucer’s wry, irreverent complexity always spurred me on.
Do you take a break between novels or are you continuously on the go?
I think ‘continuously on the go’ is exactly how my husband might describe me, with a slightly weary air. You do need a cooling-off period between books: you need to let the scenarios and settings of one book fade from your mind before you can engage with another. It’s a little like a period of mourning. I would like to think I take proper breaks between novels but I had a conversation with a friend recently and we worked out that I didn’t take any maternity leave at all with either of my daughters: various deadlines meant that I had to keep on working, with the babies in a sling on my chest. This is, of course, entirely my choice. Books are insistent, capricious things. If you don’t pay attention when they tap you on the shoulder, if you don’t listen to their voices, there’s a danger that they might disappear on you.
- The heart of this novel is a portrait of a marriage, but how much can you ever really understand other people’s marriages?
- Discuss the structure of the novel and how the author swaps between different points of view to build the story.
- Who do you find it easier to relate to – Daniel or Claudette?
- Discuss the ending of the novel.
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