What a wonderful surprise this novel was. I’m clearly getting worse, we’re only three weeks into January and I’m already in love with a new literary heroine. I absolutely adored Sybil and felt so at home in her company that I just kept reading all day. I finished at 11pm and was bereft, because I wouldn’t be with Sybil any more. Yes, this is what happens to avid readers. We fall head over heels with a character, can’t put the book down, then suffer from book withdrawal. All day I’ve been grumpy and reluctant to start a new book.
Sybil’s life is puttering along nicely. She has a job she enjoys at a London museum – Royal Institute of Prehistoric Studies (RIPS). There she produces learning materials, proof reads and indexes archaeological publications, and helps people with research enquiries. She has a great boyfriend, Simon, who is a chef and likes to make her bread from obscure grains. Her quiet, settled life is turned upside down when she, quite literally, bumps into an old nemesis from her university days. Sybil and Simon have gone ice skating, where they spot Helene Hanson, Sybil’s old university lecturer. Sybil doesn’t want to say hello, after all Helene stole some ideas from her dissertation and put them into her research on the Beaker people. They make their way over, very unsteadily, and end up careering into Helene’s group and in Sybil’s case banging her head. She has a nasty bang, and from there her life seems to change path completely. Only weeks later, Helene has stolen Sybil’s boyfriend and in her capacity working for a funding body she has taken a huge interest in RIPS who will be selling her Beakerware (TM) in the gift shop and welcome her onto their committee as chair of trustees. Sybil’s mum suggests a mature exchange of views, but Sybil can’t do that. Nothing but all out revenge will satisfy how Sybil feels. She’s just got to think of a way to expose that Helene Hanson is a fraud.
First of all I want to talk about the structure of the novel. As Sybil’s life starts to unravel, so does her narration. A suggestion from a friend leads Sybil to a poetry class at her local library, so prose is broken up with poetry and very minimal notes of what Sybil has seen that she hopes to turn into haiku. This is a Japanese form of poetry with a set structure of thirteen syllables over three lines in the order of 5, then 3, and then 5 syllables. Having lived next to a Japanese meditation garden for several years I started to write and teach haiku as a form of meditation. It’s a form linked to nature and is very much about capturing small moments. So if Sybil sees something that might inspire her, it makes its way into her narration. I loved this, because I enjoy poetry but also because it broke up the prose and showed those quiet still moments where Sybil was just observing. She works with found objects – most notably a little teacup, left on a wall, that has ‘a cup of cheer’ written on the side. There’s a very important reason for the fragmentary narration, that I won’t reveal, but I loved it and thought it was so clever. Many of my regular readers will know why I connected with it though. These changes could just be a visible symptom of the chaos in Sybil’s mind as she goes through a massive shift – physically from one flat to another – but a mental shift towards living alone, to coping with her nemesis constantly popping up at her work space and to experience the heartbreak. We’ve all been there so her situation is easy to relate to.
The characters are brilliantly drawn, funny, eccentric and human. Sybil’s boss Raglan Beveridge – who she observes sounds like a cross between a knitted jumper and a hot drink – is such a lovely man, easily swayed but kind and tries to ensure that Sybil is ok. I enjoyed Bill who she meets several times across the book, in different situations. He’s calm, funny, thoughtful and shows himself to be a good friend to Sybil, even while she’s barely noticing him! Helene seems to hang over everything Sybil does, like an intimidating black cloud promising rain to come. She is a glorious villain in that she has very few redeeming features, and tramples all over Sybil’s world at home and at work. The author cleverly represents this in the very structure of RIPS. Sybil likes her slightly fusty, behind the times little museum. There’s a sense in which it is precious, that the spaces within shelter some eccentric and fragile people. They’re like little orchids, who might not thrive anywhere else.
Helene’s organisation brings much needed funding, but with it comes obligation. As chair of the trustees, she wants to change the structure of the building and all these precious spaces might be sacrificed. Her commercial enterprise, recreating Beakerware (TM) for the museum gift shop, means the shop expanding into other areas. Exhibits that have been on display for years will be moved into storage to make room and Sybil dreads Helene using Simon as the face of the range. Imagine giant posters of your ex greeting you every morning at work. To add insult to injury she inserts herself into Sybil’s everyday job by insisting on adding a section into Raglan’s upcoming book, meaning that Sybil has to index Helene’s writing. Could there be a chance here, for Sybil to gain some satisfaction? As Sybil’s mum hints though, revenge can be more damaging to the person seeking it.
This was a quiet book. As I was reading it, I was engrossed and the outside world was muffled for a while. It reminded me of those mornings after snowfall, when the outside world is silenced. I felt a deep connection with Sybil. She’s offbeat, quirky and has a dark sense of humour. We meet her at her lowest point and we’ve all been heartbroken, but it was much more than that. I’ve been this broken by life, I was a like a vase, smashed into so many pieces I didn’t know if I could pull all those pieces back together. Even if I did, I knew I would never be the same person. My loss felt so huge that it affected my actions – I left doors unlocked when I went out, forgot to pay bills, and started to make mistakes at work. I had always prided myself on being very ‘together’ and here I was falling apart. I discovered Japanese art that healed me in some way – it’s called Kintsugi and it’s the art of repairing broken ceramics with liquid gold or other contrasting metal. It shows the cracks, that the piece has been through something, but it’s still whole. I felt that this applied to Sybil’s journey and the book’s structure too. Sometimes, broken things can be even more beautiful than they were before.
Meet The Author
Ruth Thomas is the author of three short story collections and two novels, as well as many short stories anthologised and broadcast on the BBC. Her writing has won and been shortlisted for various prizes, including the John Llewellyn Rhys Award, the Saltire First Book Award, the VS Pritchett Prize and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She lives in Edinburgh and is currently an Advisory Fellow for the Royal Literary Fund. The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line is her third novel.
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