Deep inside of a parallel universe
It's getting harder and harder
To tell what came first.
— Red Hot Chili Peppers, Parallel Universe
Why tell one love story when you can explore three different versions of the love story between two characters? That is the premise of Laura Barnett's much-lauded new novel The Versions of Us, which spans more than seven decades in the lives of would-be writer Eva and would-be painter Jim. It is an ambitious work, but in addition to the technical achievement of her novel, in Eva, Barnett has created a complex and sympathetic heroine, whom you will want to champion in each version.
The novel starts, predictably enough, with the birth of the leads. The next time we meet them they are Cambridge students in the late 1950s and this is where the story splits into three, like a greater, literary Sliding Doors. Eva is on her bike, late for a supervision, and in two versions of the story (which differ in other ways), she falls off her bike and meets Jim; in the other version, she cycles on and doesn't meet Jim, but remains in a relationship with David, a charming and charismatic, if self-involved, actor.
It is difficult to say too much more about the plot without giving away any spoilers, but clearly, it wouldn't make for good dramatic tension if the version where Eva and Jim couple up early on was all sunshine and roses, while the Eva who stays with David remains crippled with sadness. Instead, the three stories overlap considerably and are as notable for their similarities as for their differences, as Eva and Jim work on their careers (achieving various degrees of success), start families and experience sadnesses. They make mistakes and sometimes they get a second chance.
At times — particularly in the early pages, before more unique characters who only appear in one or two of the versions surface — I found myself uncertain of which version I was reading. I'm a fast reader but I would definitely recommend slowing down for the first few cycles until you get used to the nuances of the characters and the tiny, butterfly-effect-like ripples of each decision they make.
Despite its superficial resemblances to Sliding Doors, The Versions of Us is more reminiscent of Sartre's Les Jeux Sont Faits, another favourite of mine, in which Pierre and Ève die, meet in the afterlife and fall in love, only to find out that there might be some kind of second chance for soulmates. [Spoiler alert: The clue is, however, in the name of Sartre's work ('the die is cast').] Barnett's novel offers a more positive view: despite bad luck and bad decisions, things often have a way of working out the way they are supposed to. Don't worry, then, if your bike misses that rusty nail or if you miss the Tube; you may yet get another chance. In the meantime, do pick up a copy of Barnett's novel: it's beautiful, thought-provoking and a real emotional rollercoaster.