When I interviewed novelist Susan Furber on her debut The Essence of an Hour, she described to me her central character’s obsession with ‘living a life worthy of fiction’ (you can read the full interview here). It is an impulse I recognise, not just in the way that as readers we are challenged by the disordered tedium of everyday life, but as human beings desperate for the pattern and meaning of narrative. In Furber’s sequel We Were Very Merry, drama grows from those same deep-seated roots. As her world – the world of American expatriates in postwar Europe – is rebuilt from the rubble, so do the characters who populate it rebuild their altered selves from the pieces of our shared literary heritage. Their struggles are those found in Fitzgerald, Hemingway, McCullers – aspiration and apathy, compulsion and paralysis, nostalgia and regret. The way that they love and hate, as well as the way they stomp carelessly through a shattered world, reminds me of the ‘literariness’ of a performed life.
To live in a ‘literary’ way is to combine the personal journey of free thought and adventure with the public performance of describing those thoughts, poeticising that adventure. For Lillie Carrigan, the protagonist of both The Essence of an Hour and We Were Very Merry, the literary performance of her life is by turns curated and chaotic. The continued grappling between the person she was bred to be and the new person she is creating is done in public and draws in all those around her. Just as with the history of world events that is being rewritten around her, Lillie is caught in the process of rewriting the events that have brought her to this stage of life, to this particular personhood.
Furber’s achievement with We Were Very Merry lies precisely in placing Lillie’s literary nature under the eye of scrutiny. Lillie Carrigan is, like Holden Caulfield, situated in such a way that even while we, as readers, hang above her in judgement, we do so in a way that penetrates the most complex and disordered nuances of her experience, those that are not just of fiction and its ordered narratives but of life itself. And in doing so, we are encouraged, as with so much of the great literature to which Furber pays homage, to understand, appreciate and practise grace.
Joe Bedford is an author from Doncaster, UK. His short stories have been published widely and are available to read here. His debut novel A Bad Decade for Good People was released by Parthian Books in June 2023. You can read a review of it on Everybody's Reviewing here.