This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.
David Nicholls is a fluent writer and storyteller who can draw the reader in with his gently probing insights and empathetic witticisms. Sweet Sorrow, his latest work, sits easily alongside his previous bestselling novels. The characters are relatable, their troubles universal. Events and people are recognisable from everyday life.
The story is set mostly over the long weeks of a late twentieth century English summer during which the protagonist, Charlie Lewis, leaves school and awaits his GCSE exam results. Charlie knows that he has not done well enough to move on to college and then university, a trajectory his always trying to be cool friends will rarely acknowledge they aspire to. Charlie is facing his uncertain future with a heady mixture of regret, excitement and trepidation.
In the months prior to his exams, Charlie’s family life was upended. He now lives with his unemployed father who is coping badly with depression. Charlie is worried, resentful and angry, but mostly he simply wishes to avoid parental confrontation. He needs to escape the oppressive atmosphere of home, to fill the long hours in each unstructured day and try not to think too much of the decisions he must inevitably make about what comes next.
A chance encounter leads Charlie to join The Company, a summer scheme where he must work with a mixed group of people who are very different to those he has previously befriended. Despite feelings of discomfort and detachment, he finds himself returning each day. There is a girl, Fran Fisher, and Charlie realises he is falling in love.
The joyous aspects of love stories are rarely of interest to anyone other than those directly involved. To engage the reader in such stories there need to be obstacles, misunderstandings and other problems to overcome. The author presents these aspects in the form of the difficulties inherent in being sixteen years old.
The book begins on the last day of school and introduces Charlie’s friendship group. These are boys who have ended up together through circumstance more than choice. They survive on insults and banter interspersed with regular rough and tumble. They each cultivate an image that they wear like armour.
“Though none of us played an instrument, we’d imagined ourselves as a band.”
“while some girls circled […] the group was self-sufficient and impenetrable”
Charlie is all too aware that his school friends would relentlessly mock his involvement with The Company. To take part, and therefore get to know Fran, he must learn to behave differently. There is a class and cultural divide to surmount. There is the need to work out how to talk and be with a girl like Fran.
Meanwhile, Charlie’s home life is one of fear over his Dad’s mental state and what he may find inside each time he opens their front door. There is also an interesting sub plot involving petty thieving from Charlie’s part-time job. The tension this adds got me through some of the more repetitive touchy feely sections midway where my interest would occasionally wane.
There are laugh out loud moments alongside the poignancy. Fran’s recollection of an encounter with a boy she was once besotted with is filled with humour despite the appalling behaviour. Fran comes across as surprisingly self aware for a sixteen year old. Charlie appears more typical, and it is this that is the strength of the story.
“the greatest lie that age tells about youth is that it’s somehow free of care, worry or fear.
Good God, doesn’t anyone remember?”
For anyone who has ever been sixteen years old this tale will take them back to those days with all their anticipation and fear of ridicule. The narrator, Charlie, is looking back from a distance of two decades. He offers an impressive degree of clarity as well as nostalgia. He is contemplating the lasting impact of first love.
The Shakespearean elements of the story were deployed extensively. There is, however, acknowledgement that the bard’s writing will not be accessible to all readers – something the author attempts to rectify in key passages quoted. What is captured beautifully is the maelstrom of uncertainty, angst and passion to be found in groups of young people from any era.
Any Cop?: This was an enjoyable trip down memory lane.