Julie Myerson believes in hauntings. She has spent the last 13 years writing variations on the same novel. She writes repeatedly about the death of babies and children, and the impact that death has on the parents. In Me and the Fat Man (1998) the baby dies in its pram. In Something Might Happen (2003) a daughter is washed off a beach into the sea. Deaths occur when guilty mothers’ backs are turned. In Me and the Fat Man the mother is asleep. In Something Might Happen she is having a dalliance with a man in a beach hut. In Myerson’s new novel, The Story of You, the baby is ingeniously killed in a freak domestic accident.
Her adults often die too. In Me and the Fat Man the narrator’s mother has drowned in the Aegean. In Something Might Happen, her best novel, a young mother is stabbed to death in a Suffolk seaside town. Laura Blundy (2000) – which is historical rather than domestic gothic and so more eventful – opens with Laura battering her red-headed husband to death. Laura’s baby survives, but she has had to give him away to the foundling hospital. She cannot forget his lost face, but other babies, born to other women, have a habit of dying in her arms. Myerson’s narrators are always women – Amy, Donna, Laura, Rosy, Susan, Tess – and usually they are women with children, caught up in domestic routines. Deaths apart, these are idealised portraits of middle-class family life. She is a novelist of scrubbed-pine kitchen tables, airing cupboards and French windows opening onto quiet gardens. Her landscapes are the landscapes reproduced on the endpapers of Home (2004), a biography of her house and everyone who lived in it, which depicted the original estate agent’s particulars.
The Story of You begins luxuriously. Nicole and Tom are on a two-night trip to Paris, having travelled first class on the Eurostar, and are staying in a sophisticated hotel (everything is white), chosen and booked by Tom. They have left their younger son, Fin, with Tom’s mother, and their other son, Jake, is staying at a friend’s. They are not married, and the anniversary they are celebrating, the only one they ever celebrate, is the anniversary of the day they decided to have a baby. It is meant to be a romantic break, but Nicole has her mind on other things. In particular, she has been unable to stop thinking about an old boyfriend from university, and the time they spent together in a run-down student house, kissing and playing with a broken plastic-pearl necklace all night, never even taking their clothes off. And then he appears to her in the Paris hotel room, wearing the same sweater and tattered cords that he wore that night, back when they were teenagers. She decides to go for a dawn walk in snowy Paris, and on her way out the receptionist hands her a note that reads: ‘I’m waiting for you. X.’ She finds him sitting in a café, in the furthest corner. He is more solid than he was. Nicole reflects: ‘You don’t look like you go hungry any more. You look like you eat meals in restaurants these days.’ He wears glasses. These are the realities of middle-class middle age. She accuses him of not being real. He admits: ‘No. No, baby, I’m not.’
Nicole is involved in the two overlapping narratives throughout the book: the domestic narrative of family and home and the story of her ghostly love affair. The two worlds are separate, and she even has a different name in each: Nicole, her middle name, is what Tom decided to call her when they first got together; in her previous life she was Rosy, and a published poet. We learn early on that all is not well in her household. Nicole has seen a doctor about her depression. The doctor said she could prescribe antidepressants, but advised that she might do better without. We soon find out the cause of her unwellness. She and Tom have lost a baby, Mary, though it is not until halfway through the book that we find out how she died. In the domestic strand, Nicole is a woman who is defined by her children and her home and the Paris section is broken up with her memories of Mary: what an easy birth it was, what an easy baby she was. We discover the history of Tom and Nicole as parents: how they had their first child young; how they were broke when he was born. How Tom made a special changing table because they were too poor to buy one: the one he built was infinitely superior to any shop version, and made out of solid wood. But this domestic history starts to collide with the more fantastic strand of the narrative. On her way to buy cakes for Tom, she meets her student lover again – this time, appropriately, on rue de la Perle. The two narrative strands start to sit, rather uncomfortably, side by side. Paris has an unreal quality. The hotel is quite unpleasant; the rooms can be opened only in response to the guest sliding a finger into a sensor. Nicole is unsettled by the city’s anonymous chic.
Myerson comes into her own in her attention to domestic detail and the rhythms of family life, so it is a relief when the narrative returns to London and the family home:
I pushed open the pine door into the kitchen and saw black gritty paw prints all over the table, dull wefts of cat fur on the dark fabric of the chairs. A bowl of Wheetos – the last hurried thing eaten by Fin the morning we left – still sat by the sink and because he hadn’t finished the milk, its sour smell, combined with the mustier one of the cat, punctured the room.
We’d been gone less than three days, but it felt as if the house had already turned back in on itself and given up, forgotten us. I picked up Fin’s bowl and put it in the sink, ran the tap, the base of which leaked as usual, a jet of cold water spurting out and hitting the windowsill.
The house starts shifting around them again; there is washing to be done; Tom fixes the leaky tap; Nicole makes Fin boiled eggs and soldiers for tea (‘Two eggs done for exactly five minutes and 15 seconds, eight or ten buttered soldiers – white toast not brown’). It’s the familiar routine, but it is soon threatened when Nicole starts getting emails from her lover (whose name we never learn but who is the ‘you’ of the title). She finds excuses to retreat into her study and starts to lie to Tom about what she is doing at her computer. She describes her children to her lover, neglecting to mention that Mary is no longer alive.
Then an email comes with the news that he is about to come to London for a few days on business, and her life shifts again. The morning of his arrival she surveys herself in her middle-aged bagginess in the full-length mirror. She wears a pink coat to meet him at his hotel. She understands that the man she encountered in Paris was more ghost than man (here the narrative is a little foggy), but this is him in the flesh. He tells her: ‘I’m fat, I’m old. I drink and smoke too much.’ Life is catching up with itself after teenage possibilities. He owns a pair of shiny white trainers. He is a banker. When they kiss in his hotel room, a whole twenty years after the night she can’t forget, it is without the string of plastic pearls. This time they have sex. But despite everything that’s said about his solidity, or perhaps because of it, his presence feels less compellingly real than Nicole’s various housebound spectres.
The best parts of this novel are about motherhood and Mary, and about a family trying to deal with its loss. Myerson is good on what grief does to families. Nicole says that after Mary’s death ‘we relaxed a lot of the rules of the house. We rented DVDs, got takeaways. We spent time together as a family and tried not to care whether the washing-up got done or not. For a while it was almost as if there was a holiday atmosphere – everything suspended and euphoric.’ But it couldn’t last: ‘As time went on and life got back to normal, that’s when I found it hardest.’ Myerson’s women and men deal with their grief in different ways: Tom finds it impossible to say his dead daughter’s name; he can’t talk about her. He tries to be practical in the face of his own powerlessness. Nicole, holding herself back, remembers him packing up Mary’s pushchair: ‘There was sweat on the side of his head. I saw that his hair didn’t look too clean – flakes from his scalp had fallen on his shoulders, a man coming apart.’
The story of Mary’s death is told in stages, and Nicole’s affair with her student lover has the effect of making her confront what happened. She has been communing with his ghost when she should have been thinking of Mary’s. Her relationship with him – the attention he pays her – is a device to remind her that she’s a woman with a present as well as a past. But if he is meant to represent anything as tired as a healing process, then it isn’t quite integrated into the book. The catharsis happens all of a sudden, by means of a further ghost. After her lover leaves the country, she is treated to a vision of Mary in a raspberry-juice stained T-shirt. She even gets to hug her, briefly, on the bedroom carpet, for three or four seconds. Then the family slowly starts to rebuild itself. The cat has kittens; Tom starts to speak Mary’s name; they start to tell stories about her. Nicole is fully at home again.
The Story of You is not Myerson’s most straightforward treatment of the themes she has been exploring throughout her career. That was Sleepwalking (1993), her first novel. The death in that book was the suicide of the narrator’s father – Myerson’s own father killed himself, as she reports in Home – and it contained many of the originals of the episodes in The Story of You. The unresolved incident in the new book – the night of the pearl necklace – was first described in Sleepwalking. There, it is mentioned in a single paragraph: her lover reminds her of a boy she met at university whom she spent the night kissing. She had a plastic-pearl necklace that broke, and they spent the night passing a plastic pearl between their two mouths.
Everything that has changed since then has done so only quietly. In Sleepwalking, Myerson’s protagonist finds her lover waiting for her outside her house in the snow. In The Story of You, she wanders out into the snowy street in the middle of the night, as though sleepwalking or dreaming, and finds him outside her cool Paris hotel. In Sleepwalking the narrator is haunted by the ghost of her father as a troubled young boy. At one point in The Story of You she thinks she hears a boy crying out in the bathroom. The ghost boy isn’t mentioned again: his function is taken over by the ghostly man she has an affair with. Towards the end of The Story of You, Nicole’s lover gives her a present. ‘The gift lying in my hand was exactly what I knew it would be – a necklace of pearls, real pearls, heavy and solid, creamy, glossy.’