Book Review: Sweet Sorrow

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.

Book review: Us


Us, by David Nicholls, is an easy to read yet perceptive and (in places) laugh out loud funny story about a middle aged husband and father whose family life is falling apart. Douglas is a fifty-four year old Doctor of Biochemistry who has been married for almost twenty-five years to the artsy Connie. They have a seventeen year old son named Albie who is close to his seemingly cool and hip mother but not to his strait laced father. When Connie, faced with the prospect of an empty nest, announces that she wishes to leave their marriage Douglas determines to make their last family holiday (a Grand Tour of Europe and its artwork that he has already organised in meticulous detail) so successful that she will change her mind. Naturally things do not go to plan.

The book is written from Douglas’s point of view thus allowing the reader to understand that he recognises his failings, particularly as regards his son who he is trying to mould in his own image, a sensible and practical approach to the harsh realities of the modern world. His descriptions show that he has a typical seventeen year old boy (except, perhaps, for the closeness to his mother) with his filthy bedroom, unsociable hours and refusal to wear a coat. Douglas is frustrated and saddened that their relationship so frequently descends into acrimony even though he recognises that this is often his fault. I particularly empathised with the line early on:

‘But the unrequited love of one’s only living offspring has its own particular slow acid burn.’

Albie made it clear that he would prefer Ibiza with friends to ‘posh interrailing’ with his parents. Nevertheless they set off on their odyssey with each stop along the way requiring many visits to the art galleries that Connie wished to share with her son. Douglas tags along, quoting at length from guide books in an attempt to sound knowledgeable. He struggles to appreciate much of the art, a state that I can sympathise with. Perhaps for this reason I was amused by Chapter 39: A Brief History of Art which, in less than a page, covered everything from cave paintings to the current confusing free for all. It made more sense to me than any other history of art that I have read.

Much of the book is looking back. Douglas muses on the way we form memories, how parents work so hard to give their children happy childhoods filled with fabulous experiences yet what is remembered is bad television, advertising jingles and arguments about wasted food. However children behave they are loved by their parents whilst other people’s children are often regarded as bratty. When Douglas tries to discuss this phenomena with Connie they row, she thinking that he is suggesting that her son may be regarded as bratty and taking offence. I recognised that inability to see her child as others might.

It is these details that I enjoyed in the book, these truths that are rarely considered yet which affect life so fundamentally. The tale told is sad and funny, depressingly truthful yet somehow uplifting. It is lightly written but with moments of depth and clarity alongside the humour and pathos.

I shall avoid spoilers by glossing over the denouement. Suffice to say that ends were tied and I felt satisfied that the characters developed had not been compromised to achieve a particular conclusion. Families are made up of individuals, each with their own dreams and tolerances. This book was thoughtful and entertaining; I would recommend it to anyone who has experienced the raw reality of family life.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Hodder and Stoughton.