Book Review: One Thing

“If she’d been his wife, he’d be a widower. But if your ex-wife dies, you’re left with nothing at all.”

One Thing, by Xanthi Barker, is a piercing exploration of grief. Its protagonist, Len, is fifty-eight years old when he receives a phone call informing him his ex-wife, Violet, is dead. Violet walked out on their marriage and daughter twenty years ago to set up home with her accountant, Ivan. Len has never stopped loving her, and also hating her for what she did to him. Instead of phoning his daughter, or driving straight home on hearing the news, he tries to finish the big job he has been working on for months that is almost complete. This does not go well. When he eventually leaves, in time for the funeral despite being told he would not be welcome there, he is facing the prospect of bankruptcy.

Len is struggling to cope with his memories of all the things he has lost: his wife, their daughter’s smile when she was a baby, his beloved green van, the life he once thought he would live. At the centre of it all is Violet, how she was when they first got together.

“Len didn’t know, had never imagined the sun would come out in his life like that. He had settled on overcast drizzle for the most part, women who thought he couldn’t think because he didn’t think to say every thought he had”

“She said she couldn’t live without him. She couldn’t sleep without him in her bed”

“She was the first person in his life that made him want to say things”

Violet left Len for Ivan when their daughter, Lila, was still just a toddler. Len has never stopped wanting the shared life she took from him. Now he has a plan, one he knows carries risk. He will reclaim from Ivan one thing that Violet left. To do so he must enter their home, which he does when everyone else is at the funeral. Being in the place she chose over him proves overwhelming.

This story is told in the form of a novelette – just over sixty pages – yet is powerful and complete. The reader is taken through Len’s life, understanding why Violet meant so much to him. The writing is taut and direct yet breathtakingly tender. The lens through which grief is viewed – with its impuissance and jealousies – is masterfully rendered.

A short yet evocative tale from a writer whose work I will now look out for. A rare find that I recommend you read.

One Thing is published by Open Pen.

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