All About Us by Tom Ellen.

This is a great Christmas read and a few friends will be getting this as part of their Christmas parcel this year! I’m a little glad that illness has set me back a few months and I ended up reading this just before Christmas. It’s made me feel fuzzy and full of warmth. This is a sort of Christmas Carol meets One Day type premise. We follow Ben and Daphne who meet at university in an amateur dramatics production and are now married after fifteen years together. From love at first sight this couple’s relationship is fading fast. Ben feels he is at a crossroads and we see their life from his point of view. He feels unsuccessful after several fruitless attempts at a novel, whereas Daphne goes from strength to strength as a literary agent. We start in Christmas 2020 as Daphne goes to her work ‘do’ alone, while Ben is set to put up the Christmas decorations at home. Instead, Ben is at the pub lamenting his lot over a few pints and musing on his marriage, They seem to argue all the time and Ben can’t see a way forward. However, he does find a way back.

In the pub he meets a watch seller, an elderly man who reminds Ben of his Grandad. Although he tries not to engage, he somehow ends up with a wristwatch, that seems stuck a few minutes to midnight. This is the device the author uses to send Ben through time to strategic points that will hopefully be revelatory, in time to realise the right path. For some reason I hadn’t expected this magical element and that really elevated it above the ordinary for me. It made me think of the film About Time where life lessons are learned through the ability to time travel (and I always dissolve into a sobbing heap while watching). Ben’s been feeling dissatisfied for a while. He hasn’t fulfilled his potential as a writer, made worse by the fact that his absent father is so successful. He still isn’t over his mother’s death a few years before. He’s been with his wife, Daphne, since university and he really isn’t sure if they should still be together. They’ve struggled over the last couple of years, and he feels Daphne has changed from the girl he married into a bitter and angry woman, always snapping at him. When he thinks back to the pivotal moment they met, at a university play, he wonders whether he made the right choice that night. He and his friend Alice had spent so much time together that term, there’d been mild flirting as this performance drew near and he felt there was an unspoken agreement that the party after this performance might be the time for things to go further. Then Daphne had come through the door and the attraction was instant. Lately though, he’s been in touch with Alice again and they are making plans to meet. He’s now wondering if he chose the wrong girl all those years, that Daphne was merely a distraction, and he’d be happier with Alice. At this pivotal moment he’s offered the watch, that seems to be stuck at five minutes to midnight. Ben thinks it’s worthless, but this watch will propel him through Christmases past and future to answer the questions he’s asking himself.

There’s a reason people reuse Dickens’s Christmas Carol as a narrative structure, and that’s because it works. It shows us how our hero has become the man we meet at the beginning. It shows him how he got here, but gives him perspective and balance by showing the other person’s viewpoint. Finally, the watch takes him forward into the future he was wishing for himself, so he can see if it’s really better than the one he already has. There are many revelations along the way for us and for Ben. In one section we see how Daphne wins an award at work, but blows off the ceremony in order to commiserate with Ben who is feeling down about his work being rejected. Ben had never known about the award and it triggers him thinking about all the little things she’s done that he hadn’t noticed. A meet up with his Dad at his mum’s funeral opens his eyes to his dad’s failures in other areas of his life compared to his career. Ben had envied his Dad’s success as a writer, but does he have success as a father and as a husband? Ben goes into these encounters with all the knowledge he has in the here and now, so he knows how he responded in the past. He wonders whether changing those responses will impact the future? He’s still unsure about his marriage, but the more he sees of Daphne in the past the more he starts to really appreciate his wife. She’s thoughtful, she listens to him, she’s kind to others and has great friendships. She had a great relationship with his Mum and he realises he never once asked how she felt when his mother died. He sat in his grief alone instead of sharing their loss and missing her together.

I love the psychoanalytical aspect to these travels – he’s faced with the truth of himself and past events: is the image he has of his absent father a true one, what upsets him so much about the discussion he had before his mother died, and why does he now believe that it was his friend Alice, not Daphne, who he should have fallen in love with that night long ago? Is he thinking about Alice because he truly feels she’s the one or is it simply that he has idealised her when compared to the complexity and hard work of living with someone long term? If he only thinks about his father as a great playwright could he be excusing his absence as a Dad, as well as imagining he has passed on an inheritance of genius writing talent – as yet unseen in himself. These questions are answered in a series of self-revelations, as each trip back is like a self-contained therapy session. He realises that he’s been looking back on events as if he’s had no control over them, but some events that ‘just happened’ were choices. Daphne didn’t just happen to him that night at the play, like a quirk of fate, he chose to kiss her. Similarly, the events on a break in Paris, were active choices he made. He has to accept there’s a lot of self-pity in his outlook on life and he can’t abdicate his responsibilities for bad choices. I had to keep reading because I was waiting for him to realise that the angry, bitter woman he describes at the beginning of the book is partly his creation. The culmination of all this comes as he sees Christmas future, the changes he thinks he wants in the present come to pass, and he lives a totally different Christmas Day. This is the catalyst for his decision on what future he really does want, but he isn’t sure whether the watch will ever bring him back to the present. Then, if he does reach the present, can he move forward never talking about the revelations he’s had or admitting the things he’s done wrong? Will he have to risk everything he has, to win it back again?

This is a beautifully written book, with a clever premise and a really interesting character at the centre. As with all versions of this Christmas story, the magic happens to someone whose lost all their hope and optimism in life – partly because of events that have shaped them, but largely due to their own character flaws and outlook. Once they are shown other people’s point of view, a different perspective and where their self-destructive path is leading them, it can hopefully bring about change. I did hope all the way through that Ben would find his way back to Daphne, despite some of the things he’s done. I also wanted him to have consequences, to work a little for the love and support she has shown him over the years that has gone largely unacknowledged. With one magic watch, the old man from the pub manages what I try to achieve with clients in therapy. Self-awareness, clarity about their part in their life choices, responsibility for their actions, then a way of reconciling with all of they have learned and planning a pathway forward. It’s just that Ben does it all in one night! Each time hop has helped him come a little closer to the truths of his life. I didn’t always like him, but then I’m not sure we’re meant to. He needs to be a little flawed, in order for the revelations that come his way to have an effect. It’s a simple lesson – that none of us are perfect, that all relationships involve an element of taking the other person for granted even without meaning to, and that we have to accept our own flaws and mistakes as well as the flaws of our loved ones. Love, acceptance, time travel and Christmas – it’s a magical combination.

Meet The Author

Tom is an author and journalist from London, England. He is the co-writer of three critically acclaimed Young Adult novels: LOBSTERS (which was shortlisted for The Bookseller’s inaugural YA Book Prize), NEVER EVERS and FRESHERS. His solo adult debut novel is the romantic comedy ALL ABOUT US (HQ/HarperCollins, published October 2020). His books have been widely translated and are published in 20 countries. He is a regular contributor to Viz magazine, and has also written for Cosmopolitan, Empire, Evening Standard Magazine, The Daily Mash, Glamour, NME, ESPN, ShortList, Time Out London, Vice, Stylist and many more.

Published by thelotusreaders

Hello, I am Hayley and I run Lotus Writing Therapy and The Lotus Readers blog. I am a counsellor, workshop facilitator and avid reader.

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