Becoming Strangers by Louise Dean

The near impossibility of happiness
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The Independent Culture

Is there any sadness more profound than the realisation that your life, as it draws to a close, has been under used, maybe even ill used? For those not staring directly at death, the question stands: how do we cope with who we are, who we no longer want to be, or who we no longer want to be with?

Is there any sadness more profound than the realisation that your life, as it draws to a close, has been under used, maybe even ill used? For those not staring directly at death, the question stands: how do we cope with who we are, who we no longer want to be, or who we no longer want to be with?

In the idle West, this has become a billion-dollar industry - self-help books, therapies, treatments - but holidays are still the preferred solution for most. For Louise Dean, setting her first novel in a Caribbean hotel, holidays are "an agreeable palliative for an ailment mankind barely knows how to complain about: the life we have made".

But for Jan and Annemieke, a fortnight in tropical luxury only makes a dreadful situation worse. Jan is in the penultimate phase of cancer and somehow trying to make sense of his wife's disengagement. But he probably didn't realise her savage boredom (he has spent six long years dying) would prompt her to pay a man for sex. When she is caught in flagrante, she cries "rape", but Jan cannot believe her. Dissolution is inevitable.

Yet it bonds the unlikely friendship of Jan with George: eightyish, sprightly, also gifted the holiday by his children. His wife Dorothy is equally disengaged; this time, barely-acknowledged Alzheimer's is the reason. Without talking overtly about their troubles, both men take solace in the other's lonesome company. The result, in a novel which this week won the Betty Trask Prize, is remarkably moving.

The first half is a fine display of economic writing, never wasting a word and yet revealing a wealth of emotion, history and desire. It reads like mature Anne Tyler, but is a first novel: Dean has launched six fully-formed characters, most over 50, all compassionately drawn. But the second half, as the action accelerates, is even better, both page-turning and heart-breaking. I read the final paragraph and wept - for Jan's isolation, for George's dogged self-belief, for Annemieke's lust-camouflaged loneliness, for the near impossibility of happiness.

This is the sort of book that makes you want immediately to go back to page one and start again. The entire story is perfectly balanced, with each sin weighed against a kindness, each act of selfishness underpinned by a deeply-held belief. The prose will reward you as well. A young man dancing with his hands on an older woman's hips is described "as if he was carrying a wardrobe over a rope bridge". And, most surprising, while drawing you intimately into the characters' feelings, Dean can still stand back and (like Philip Roth) remind you that, for instance, "the hotel room, the toiletries, the champagne, were the tokens of a formal love affair ... These objects served to establish a distance between them that constituted perfection".

Apart from the dull title and atrocious jacket design, Becoming Strangers really will be one of the books of the year.

Jonathan Myerson

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