"If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence."
Those lines from Middlemarch form the epigraph to William Nicholson's brilliant novel The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life which is set over six days in May, 2000 in a village in Sussex. On the face of it it's 'an everyday story of country folk', or to be more exact the generally well-heeled, upper-middle class members of a small rural community, those whose lives coincide at the school gates, on the commuter train to London or while picking up the Sunday papers at the village shop.
Laura is happily married to Henry, a documentary maker, and divides her time between looking after their two children and occasional work as a specialist in antiquarian books, but a letter arrives out of the blue from Nick, the lover who let her down so badly twenty years earlier when they were students. Nick - a successful art dealer now living in the US - is back in England and wants to see Laura again, but he was everything to her and he walked away from their relationship, so what should she do?
Then there's Liz, a journalist, whose daughter Alice is taught at the local prep school by Alan, a would-be playwright, and Liz's mother Mrs. Dickinson whose path crosses with that of a tenant farmer who is a subject of fascination to Laura and Henry's son Jack, the consequences of which involve the vicar who has lost his faith and who becomes the subject of a news item in which Liz played an instigating role ....
So you see that that inter-connectedness forms the background mesh through which the various protagonists' stories are woven. It is there and in the very telling of their tales - those shifts, some minor but significant, some of major consequence, which can occur in any life on any day - that this book is so successful. There's an honesty to it, a lot of humour, a great deal of sharply accurate, sensitively perceptive dissection of the human condition and the workings of the minds of ordinary people - their thoughts, hopes and fears, their lusts and longings, their feelings of dislocation, of being somehow not on the path they were meant to tread; on another level, there's even a marvellous account of Laura's expedition to the better London shops to buy an outfit to wear at Glyndebourne, a scene with which many women will nod in sympathy! But it's that 'secret intensity', that 'roar ... on the other side of silence', which makes the book unusual and provides its major dimension, so beautifully balanced and intelligently played out, so marvellously entertaining and sparklingly done, and which holds the reader so effortlessly; I was genuinely sorry to reach the end.
Happily, though, there is more where that came from in the shape of All the Hopeful Lovers which sees some of the characters return, eight years on, and then the third in the loose series, The Golden Hour. As you see, I am hooked.