For all it is a gripping, precipitous read, the writing a model of clarity and resonance, Belonging is a very odd book that haunts long after it's done. The story of Jack McCall, amiable handyman, obliging lover first of therapy-obsessed Anna then of disturbed Therese, offers then revokes some fundamental tropes. In a novel with a psychologically damaged and damaging narrator, we can often expect to arrive at the cause of this damage. And once this original trauma has been relived, the narrator is open to the possibility of healing self-knowledge. No such revelation is offered here.
The worst thing that happens in Jack's childhood is when it becomes clear that, though a competent pianist, he is no prodigy. Even this he merely experiences as relief. In Butlin's fiction, from the beautifully poised stories of "The Tilting Room" to the enduring novel The Sound of My Voice, we encounter not causes but symptoms and symbols of malaise. The "fall" from wholeness, innocence, connection is presented as simply the human condition. The blurb suggests that at the end of these trials - the story is near-thriller at times, with revelations and violent deaths - there is redemption; not that I can read. No, at the end Jack is back with Anna, who seems more alarming and self-harming than ever, in a hell of their own devising: "The day burns hotter at every step we take."
This novel dramatises not belonging but its absence. Jack is Scottish but seems permanently in exile. He drifts from a brilliantly evoked world of luxury and ice in Switzerland, to low-rent Paris, to drop-out indolence and burning heat in Spain, all without any conviction, ideals or sense of belonging. It's not merely romantic commitment he lacks; he has no political, class or familial sense of connection.
Jack is a drifter, a slacker who likes to fix things - hearts, fuses, heating systems. He is an outsider who, in a more alarming retake on Camus, doesn't even see himself as an outsider; a lost soul who doesn't know it. Love isn't going to sort him and his world out, nor will self-knowledge, therapy or political action.
It is an unusual and profoundly pessimistic vision. The point is that, artistically, it convinces. We can live with it because of the quality of the writing, the flickers of wit, the tension and uncertainty. But for all Jack's sunny amiability, it is very dark, this non-belonging.
Andrew Greig's 'Preferred Lies' is published by WeidenfeldReuse content