I bring you the review of a new book by an author I’ve become a fan of in recent years.
The Frequency of Us: A BBC2 Between the Covers book club pick by Keith Stuart
A BBC2 BETWEEN THE COVERS BOOK CLUB PICK
‘A fascinating, beautiful, heartwarming novel. It kept me gripped from the very first chapter’ — BETH O’LEARY
In Second World War Bath, young, naïve wireless engineer Will meets Austrian refugee Elsa Klein: she is sophisticated, witty and worldly, and at last his life seems to make sense . . . until, soon after, the newly married couple’s home is bombed, and Will awakes from the wreckage to find himself alone.
No one has heard of Elsa Klein. They say he was never married.
Seventy years later, social worker Laura is battling her way out of depression and off medication. Her new case is a strange, isolated old man whose house hasn’t changed since the war. A man who insists his wife vanished many, many years before. Everyone thinks he’s suffering dementia. But Laura begins to suspect otherwise . . .
From Keith Stuart, author of the much-loved Richard & Judy bestseller A Boy Made of Blocks, comes a stunning, emotional novel about an impossible mystery and a true love that refuses to die.
‘Enthralling, a real thing of beauty. Dazzling’ — JOSIE SILVER
‘The Frequency of Us is a novel with a bit of everything: a sweeping love story, wonderfully complex characters, and a sprinkling of the supernatural. I loved it, and know it’ll stay with me for some time’ — CLARE POOLEY
‘A complete joy! An intelligent, intricate and emotive mystery’ — LOUISE JENSON
KEITH STUART, author of A Boy Made of Blocks, is games editor at the Guardian. He started out as writer and features editor on the highly influential magazine Edge, before going freelance in 2000 to cover games culture for publications such as The Official PlayStation Magazine, PC Gamer, and T3, as well as investigating digital and interactive art for Frieze. He also writes about music, film and media for the Guardian, and is a regular on the Tech Weekly podcast. He is married with two sons.
Thanks to NetGalley and to Little, Brown, and Company UK (Clara Díaz in particular) for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.
I have read and reviewed Keith Stuart’s previous two novels, both wonderful: A Boy Made of Blocks (check here) and Days of Wonder (you can find the review here), and I was pleased to be offered the opportunity to read this one as well. Although in some ways this is a pretty different reading experience, less reassuring and more puzzling at times, I’ve enjoyed it as well.
It is difficult to talk about the plot of this novel without revealing too much of what happens, and although this is not a conventional mystery, a lot of the story hinges on what is real and what is not, on different versions of events and of people’s lives, on how the past makes us what we are, and on how a small decision can change many things and send our lives in totally different directions. The story is set in the historical city of Bath, in two different eras, in 2008 (the present, as far as the novel is concerned) and during WWII (mostly 1942). There are many themes explored in this novel: the nature of memory, depression and anxiety, PTSD, the changes in the city of Bath over the years, old-age care, wartime (WWII) in the UK, and the experience of German/Austrian refugees there, the development of radio technology, family relationships, psychological abuse, love in wartime… There are strange happenings in the book that at times can make us think of a paranormal element, although they can also be explained away in totally rational ways (almost), and there is also a science-fiction background (very light on the science part) that might feel almost an afterthought (but it probably is anything but).
When trying to come up with a category or definition that truly fitted my reading experience I only came up with movies and plays that popped into my mind as I read, but I wouldn’t say that is because they are closely related. In any case, here they go, in case they might give you a clue: Frequency (a movie from 2000, where radios played an important part and different generations managed to communicate), Sliding Doors, Match Point (those two about the effect a small decision can have), and J.B. Priestley’s time plays, particularly two I’ve watched: An Inspector Calls, and Time and the Conways.
Ultimately, this is a book about two people, Will (an old man when we meet him first, living alone and holding on to a love story nobody else seems to think was ever real), and Laura (a woman in her late twenties), who seemingly have nothing in common but quickly connect. Laura, who suffers from anxiety and depression as a result of years of psychological abuse from her father (we come to learn some of the reasons for his behaviour later, but that is no justification), has to visit Will for work, and trying to confirm his life story, one that doesn’t seem to match facts, gives her a reason to live. In the process of trying to learn about him, she gains confidence, confronts some truths about her life and her family, and learns to trust in herself. The connection between these two people, who never felt they quite belonged in their current lives, becomes clearer as the novel progresses.
Apart from the two main characters, who narrate the story in the first person each one in a different time frame (and Stuart is as good as ever at getting inside of the characters’ minds and making us experience both, Laura’s anxiety symptoms, her insecurity, and her dread, and Wills’ sense of wonder and excitement on meeting Elsa and falling in love with her), we also have Elsa Klein, a wonderful character, colourful, vibrant, magical, who haunts much of the novel, and whose voice we also hear, if only occasionally, and many other secondary characters (Laura’s boss, her mother, her father, Will’s neighbours and his friends from youth…) who play smaller parts but are also convincingly and realistically portrayed.
The novel flows well. The descriptions of Bath in the past and in the present don’t disrupt the narrative, giving it, instead, an anchor and a privileged setting that help carry the story along. The action takes place along different historical times, but these are clearly indicated in the novel and aren’t confusing to readers, and although some of the events are not easy to explain, this is not due to the way the story is told. The love story between Will and Elsa is very moving, and I was touched by the story and on the verge of tears more than once. I highlighted so much of the novel that I’d find it difficult to choose only one or two quotes. I recommend future readers check a sample of the book to see if it would be a good fit for their taste.
I’ve talked about mysterious goings-on when referring to the plot, and there are some false endings, when you think that is it and feel disappointed (at least I did), but don’t worry, it is not. I know some readers weren’t totally convinced by the ending, and well, I’m still thinking about it (and will probably be thinking about it for a long time), but I liked it. I won’t go into suspension of disbelief, etc., etc. Yes, depending on how you look at it, it might not make sense from a conventional point of view, but that is not what this novel is about.
In sum, this is another great novel by Keith Stuart, perhaps his most ambitious to date, where he goes exploring not only historical fiction, but also speculative Physics, the nature of time and memory, multiverses, enduring love, and a world full of wonderful characters. If you need a story with a little bit of magic, imagination, a hopeful ending, and a lot of heart, I recommend it.