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Review: Ten Things I've Learnt About Love, By Sarah Butler

Letters to an unknown woman

Sarah Butler's graceful and subtle debut novel alternates two voices: those of Alice, who's rushed back to London from Mongolia because her father is dying of cancer; and Daniel, an older homeless man who devotes himself to searching the city for the daughter he's never seen, posting a birthday card at around the right time every year with only her name on the envelope, because that's all he knows. "I have never met you," he muses, "but what other word is there, except love?"

As one might expect from the title, love, in all its shape-shifting complexity, is at the core of this novel; that and the consequences – good and bad – of keeping secrets. Alice, still yearning for the boyfriend from whom she split because he wouldn't tell his parents about her, is the youngest of three sisters. Tilly, the oldest, in a long-term relationship with a married man, is a comforting presence who bakes prolifically. Cee, the middle sibling, is a control freak, married, with a trio of sons, a sensible part-time job and ferociously co-ordinated crockery.

As their father reaches the end of his life (their mother died when they were children, crashing her car on the way to collecting Alice from ballet), the sisters come together in his house. Alice has never felt at home here, even though it's where she grew up. There's something their father will only discuss with Cee and Tilly: a secret that's always a breath away from being revealed; a truth that, throughout the novel, teases at the limits of Alice's consciousness.

Meanwhile, Daniel, a synaesthete for whom letters and names have associated colours, collects discarded items and arranges them into artistically coded messages which he leaves on street corners and in parks for his lost daughter. Then, by chance, he finds out where she is.

Butler writes Daniel and his situation exceptionally well; neither romanticising nor patronising. He is neither victim nor hero: merely someone who, in his words, has "made the choices I've made, and it's not always as simple as you might imagine".

Both he and Alice are habitual list-makers. Each of their lists comprises 10 items, and Butler uses these to mark the points where the narrative switches between the two protagonists. The lists are effective at packing lots of story into few words, but their formulaic neatness means that – unlike everything else in this novel – they don't taste quite real.

The shifting and intricate dynamics of family life, and the vertiginously painful feelings of loss induced by relationship breakdown and bereavement, are written with imaginative precision. This is a thought- as well as emotion-provoking novel. Butler coaxes her readers into different points of view, switching perspectives to explore the pull of travelling, how far it's about living, how far running away; whether it can, sometimes, be better to leave truths untold. It also sparkles with hope. The last item on the novel's penultimate list (one of Daniel's) reads – economically, perfectly – "And maybe–".

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