David Nicholl’s debut novel, Starter for Ten, was a big success and was later made into a film. His second, The Understudy, was a relatively low-key affair. A friend read Starter for Ten and opined that Nicholls ‘can write’, but there is ‘no substance in the book’. I thought I would read Starter for Ten (along with Victoria Hislop’s The Island), if I went on a holiday. Which I haven't done this year. Then I read One Day, David Nicholls’s third novel.
Why did I buy One Day instead of reading Starter for Ten which I already had in my collection? What can I say? I like to be unpredictable.
Through a series of snapshots of a day—15th July, the St Swithin’s day, to be exact—repeated at yearly intervals over two decades, starting from 1988, One Day traces the lives of two friends— Emma Morley and Dexter Meyhew. The two meet on the graduation day at Edinburgh University where they had spent the previous four years. Emma had noticed and liked the handsome Dexter ever since she saw him at a party in her first year at the University, but had had not done anything about it because she did not want to risk being spurned by Dexter who she suspects is posh and therefore in a different league. Emma has a working class background and speaks with such pronounced Northern accent that some of her university acquaintances think it is an affectation, their misconception strengthened by Emma’s socio-political views which are to the left of Lenin. She is the sort of girl who regards ‘bourgeois’ as a term of abuse, reads Unbearable Lightness of Being, and has photographs of Nelson Mandela and Che Guevara adorning the walls of her room. Dexter, who indeed comes from a very comfortable middle class background, has little reason to take notice of Emma, surrounded as he is by a bevy of girls who are only too keen to wrap themselves around him like Union Jack. He finally notices Emma—despite her attempts to spoil her good looks by intimidating spectacles—at the graduation ceremony, and the two spend the night in her room, ‘cuddling’ and ‘kissing’, and speculating what might they do with the rest of their lives. Dexter is taking a gap year—the obligatory rite of passage for the children of affluent parents—so that he can find himself in countries like India and Thailand. Beyond that he has no idea of what he is going to do other than a vague notion that he wants to be successful, make his parents proud and sleep with more than one woman at the same time. Emma entertains the romantic notion of being courageous, making a difference and changing lives through maybe art, and writing beautifully (Awwww). Neither, on this last night as students, is under the illusion that they will see much of the other over the years, although neither has the stomach to actually say so. Emma would like to see more of Dexter but knows she wouldn’t (not being in the same league and all that), and attempts to get over her disappointment by making repeated barbed witze at Dexter’s affluent background.
The story then takes a leap in time and we meet Emma and Dexter a year later, on the same day. They have kept in touch. (They would, wouldn’t they? How would the story progress, otherwise?) Dexter is in his gap year, travelling through Asia, and Emma is touring with an experimental theatre company, having decided to try out acting as her vocation, even though she is nagged all the time by the suspicion that she does not have the requisite talent. Upon his return to England, Dexter embarks on what appears to be a successful media career as a late night television presenter of outré programmes, and, as was his ambition, sleeps his way through a cavalcade of women with nice legs and terrific breasts. Emma, in the meanwhile, lurches from one soul-destroying job to another, before becoming a teacher of English (the triple A’s came handy after all) and drama in a secondary comprehensive in London. Both are in relationships that, in the words of relationship counsellors, have serious issues. Dexter is with his television co-presenter, a loud girl for whom ‘bubbliness is a way of life verging on a disorder’, while Emma starts seeing a man who was a fellow-waiter when she worked in a Tex-Mex, and whose face reminds her of ‘tractors’. The man, Ian, has the ambition to become a stand-up comedian and Emma simply does not have the heart to tell him that he is terrible at it. Emma and Dexter continue to meet dutifully, increasingly feeling that they have little left in common. Dexter, whose career is taking a downward trajectory—hastened by his willingness to snort cocaine by the garden-hose and consume alcohol in quantities that would render a man of average weight and height comatose—even if he does not know it, finds himself getting increasingly irked by Emma’s sardonic humour. He concludes that the chip on her shoulder—at not having achieved much in career despite triple A’s at university—has mutated into a millstone. Emma, on her part, sees what Dexter refuses to accept what he has become: unpleasant, inconsiderate and on a fast train to endsville. Things come to a head between them during one of their increasingly cantankerous meetings, and Emma, unable to bear any longer Dexter’s demeanour that suggests (to her) that he would rather be somewhere else than be with her, walks away from their friendship. Neither has much luck in their relationships. The bubbly television presenter, on her way to the P list of celebrities, wisely concludes that Dexter, headed in the opposite direction, is past his sell-by-date and replaces him with an upgraded version. Emma finds escape from Ian’s awful jokes into the waiting arms of the principal of the comprehensive she works in (who seems so sexually fixated on her that you think he surely qualifies as a stalker but for the fact that the stalkee has got into his bed—metaphorically so to speak, they have sex in his office—of her own accord), and carries a two-year affair with him that is marked principally by lack of affection.
Over the next few years, Emma and Dexter meet occasionally, mostly at the wedding receptions of their university friends; and are cordial, civil and distant to each other. Dexter starts another relationship; this time with a career woman named Sylphie who talks and behaves like an agent of some alien species programmed to look and behave like humans; into the bargain she has awful petit bourgeois parents who think Dexter is a waste of space. Dexter and Sylphie marry in due course and have a daughter. Dexter accepts that his television career is more difficult to revive than arouse Lazarus, and, heeding Sylphie’s sensible advice, gets a job offered by his flatmate from his university days who has become some sort of business magnate and is opening sandwich bars all over the place. Emma too takes several decisions, each one the motivational gurus and Life-coaches would describe as life-changing. She asks the unfunny Ian (to whom she in any case is not faithful) to sod off; she tells the sex-fiend of a principal to find someone else he can get carpet burns with; and resigns her job in the school. And becomes a free-lance writer—writing teenage fiction, drawing her own illustrations. After a lot of struggle and several rejections she finds a publisher and, to her pleasant surprise, her witty novel chronicling the adventures of her teenage heroine becomes successful, paving way—Harry Potter style—to several more installations. Things do not turn out that well for Dexter. While he is sampling sandwiches for his university friend and employer, he (the employer) is sampling Sylphie’s buns. The marriage ends after Sylphie walks out on Dexter, taking their daughter with her. Dexter is distraught and even the knowledge that his ex-parents-in-law dislike Sylphie’s new partner even more than they disliked him is not enough to console the inconsolable cuckold. Riper opportunity will not present itself to the two estranged friends to reconcile, and that’s what happens. Emma and Dexter make up. They go a step further and do something which Emma has thought about from time to time right from their university days, but Dexter hasn’t until recently: they start a relationship. In the last part of the novel we find Emma and Dexter settling into a sedate, affectionate relationship—she writes her teenage best-seller while he opens a café that is moderately successful. Surely nothing will go wrong for the two friends now. And then something unforeseen happens.
One Day is one of those novels that are absorbing, funny, sharply observed, wise, heart-warming, moving, and—for all these reasons—terrific reads. Starting in the Thatcher years, the novel traces, via its two protagonists, the lives led by millions in the Labour boom years. Mind, there is not a lot of politics in the novel; in fact, despite Emma’s intermittent hand-wringing at not being faithful to teenage socialist / left wing principles, there is hardly any. Similarly, despite an occasional nod to the flashbulb events such as the famous Labour victory of 1997 and the July 2005 bombings of the London underground, the socio-politico-cultural events of these decades form, at most, a blurred background. It is therefore all the more striking that the novel so succinctly captures the zeitgeist of those times. One Day is a remarkable social novel.
Nicholls takes great care in developing the characters of the two protagonists. Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew are totally believable, solid, well rounded characters. They have their foibles and are capable of causing hurt; they are also capable of genuine kindness. As the novel progresses, you find yourself warming up to them, getting engrossed in their lives, rejoicing in their success, and, when the end comes, they stay in your mind for a long time. Not many novels can do this. Emma Morley, in particular, is a memorable character. One Day is a deeply sentimental novel, but not once does Nicholls take recourse to cloying sentimentality. It is a deeply affecting novel, without being schmaltzy. It is a rare gift to get the balance of emotions the exact right, and Nicholls manages it with great aplomb.
The prose of One Day is fabulous. Nicholls writes like dream. The sentences flow so smoothly that reading this novel is like floating lightly along the gentle flow of a river. As with everything else, the tone of the narrative is pitch perfect. The narrative engages you from the first page and your interest does not slag throughout its four hundred plus pages, which do not contain one otiose word. There are passages of great wit in the novel, coupled with acute observations. One Day is a fine comic novel; it is a social comedy in addition to everything else. The humour is wry but not cringeworthy. Thus Nicholls’s description of the rituals of modern marriages brings a smile to your face, but you also find yourself nodding because it rings so true.
One Day is wonderful (or wonderful, wonderful) novel (see the image below), and Nicholls is a writer in the same tradition as Jonathan Coe and Nick Hornby: a virtuoso chronicler of how it is to live in modern Britain. Five stars.