The Distance Between Us by Maggie O'Farrell

A gift for storytelling wrapped in gold paper and tied with bows
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

"The Distance Between Us is a love story about two people who have never met." The précis on the inside cover of Maggie O'Farrell's latest novel throws down such an outsize gauntlet that I delayed reading the book to see if I could work out how she was going to perform the trick. "Don't tell me, I'll get it in a minute" I mumbled.

If any writer could ignite passion between two characters oblivious to each other, Maggie O'Farrell would surely be the one. She's already written a glittering love story about the dead in After You'd Gone, so remote-control devotion should be a doddle. The précis is misleading I'm afraid. The love story begins only after the two main characters, on separate trajectories from London and Hong Kong, collide in a remote part of Scotland. In other words they do meet after all. So why am I telling you all this? Simply because it underlines the fundamental expectation about a new Maggie O'Farrell novel. Her gift for storytelling is wrapped in gold paper and tied with 15 velvet bows. Give her any synopsis you like and she would probably make it work.

She specialises in characters with split identities and bags of secrets. Maggie O'Farrell sees doubleness in the way that the rest of us see it only at the opticians with funny glasses on. In The Distance Between Us, broad beans "have metamorphosed: a puckered, toughened hide clings close to twin halves" and the principal character Stella looks at a diagram of the body "seeing for the first time the way our heart is always full of two opposing elements".

Stella, like every self-respecting O'Farrell character, is as studded with secrets as a pomander. She is so close to her sister Nina that they occupy separate halves of the same identity. Stella has done something wicked and Nina has pledged to keep her secret safe for ever. They're Scottish-Italian (yet more doubleness) and feel frayed from both strands of their lineage. Bring on Jake, British but brought up in Hong Kong speaking Cantonese. By sleight of hand, Jake finds himself, bizarrely and shockingly, married to a woman he doesn't love within hours of the novel's opening scene. The alchemical trick is for him to be transformed from a Cantonese-speaking Welshman with the wrong girl into an English-speaking Scotsman with the right girl.

Maggie O'Farrell has a magical talent for writing sensuous love scenes which are somehow touchingly old-fashioned. Jake's longing for Stella, expressed in an impromptu scene of sole-reading (as opposed to palm-reading) is exquisite. I read it with a half shudder, since my own feet are in no state to be examined so closely, but Stella has obviously been keeping up with her pedicures. And the fleeting glance or the briefest of foot massages is, after all, how O'Farrell characters communicate best. The modest shreds of dialogue are of the hesitant "Sorry, I didn't mean to, I... " variety. The real meaning is derived from what characters do and the disorientating swoosh backwards and forwards between past and present tenses. A handy clue, by the way, to imminent "events" is any mention of a train. If O'Farrell starts introducing platforms and waiting rooms, get ready for something big. She exploited it to powerful effect in After You'd Gone, exposing the mother's secret in the station tea bar. In The Distance Between Us, as Jake boards the sleeper to Scotland, "travelling up the spine of the island whose shape he's spent so long gazing at", you know things are reaching a climax. Stella travels to the eye of her storm, via a friend's flat and Brief Encounter on the telly. "Stella watched, dumbly, as a pale woman with over-pencilled eyebrows waited for her lover in a railway café."

I've seen a photograph of Maggie O'Farrell sitting at her polished rosewood desk. It's ludicrously tidy, bisected precisely by two rows of symmetrical yellow Post-it notes. The woman who writes magnificently about turmoil looks so ordered and calm. But then I re-read The Distance Between Us. Stella, confronting her dreadful secrets at last, looks at the river-bank beneath her feet. It is "soft and layered with pine needles, which have been pulled into neat, uniform directions by the water, like nails drawn by a magnet". Tidy equals turmoil. So whatever the rows of pine needles and Post-it notes may suggest, in the novel at least, there's a powerful and mesmerising whirlpool beneath.