This is a novel about ordinary lives that, at times, dips – or perhaps rises – into the extraordinary. It is about an averagely muddled middle-class family, the Alldens, who live in a ramshackle three-storey house in Bath: parents Emily and Don, and children Liz, Clive, Lotte and Benjamin. The book starts in the late Sixties, with Emily pregnant with Benjamin, and ends sometime in the recent past, with the children coping, more and less well, with the deterioration and death of the older generation.
Nothing of any note happens in the novel, that hasn't happened (or will) in your life or mine, and to spend any part of this review summarising either the plot, or the characters, would be beside the point.
There is nothing special about any of them. What makes the book worth reading is the ease with which Will Eaves soaks the page in their personalities, dipping almost at random in and out of their thoughts, and aiming those thoughts – as thoughts in families so often are – at those around them.
It's true that this way of proceeding, like slow-turning kaleidoscope, takes some getting used to. The paragraphs jump between characters, the chapters skip years, leaving the reader to play catch-up. Once-central characters can die without Eaves feeling the need to inform us, or reappear momentarily, as if glimpsed from the corner of the eye. The novel works as much by absences and oblique reference as by direct statement. That's how families work, after all.
All of which might not be quite enough to keep you turning the pages, if it weren't for the sheer joy of some of Eaves's writing, whether an individual metaphor – the sun, as squinted at by Ben, floating in a swimming pool on holiday, is "a jittery coin" – or a precise, economical description – "There was a soft thunk as Emily knocked over her juice, followed by a roll and a leisurely smash" – or an insight into the human mind: "The sound of the Hoover knocking against the banisters was Emily's way of informing Liz that she'd now been in her room too long, and that it was time to show her face... Soon the usefulness of the ruse would be spent, with no more surfaces to be vacuumed, and Emily would be forced to knock on the door or just barge in and say, 'Oh! Liz! I didn't think you were in. I thought I heard you go out."
Be charmed for long enough by this delicacy of operation, and you'll end up rewarded with all kinds of depths to the relationships, making connections that you didn't know you were capable of. Anyone put off the family drama of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections or Freedom by the oppressive shadow of the author, so didactic and manipulative, might well find this an excellent replacement.