Jimmy Noone escapes his difficult life in a small town and finds himself living on the streets of a big city where he meets Betwa, who brings with her a chance of real friendship and a glimpse of new hope. Betwa disappears and Jimmy walks across the sprawling metropolis searching for her.
He arrives on Shifnal Road on the other side of the river where people from all over the world live side by side yet some inhabitants are so isolated they seem to have disappeared altogether. Jimmy becomes the catalyst for their lives colliding.
Journeys to the street and to the city are retraced, so too are stories abundant with lost dreams, unrivalled friendship, profound love and stifling grief, each underpinned with the subtle threads of commonality which intersect them all.
Should We Fall Behind is about the passing of time, and the intricate weaves of joy and suffering, love and loss which shape human life along the way. It is about the people who have somehow become invisible, and how their stories make them visible once more.
I don’t think it is any great secret that I am a massive fan of the books that Bluemoose have published so far this year. Saving Lucia by Anna Vaught and The Sound Mirror by Heidi James are two of my top reads of 2020, and as such I was both excited and slightly nervous about diving into the third novel in Bluemoose’s year of only publishing books by women. I need not have worried – this book is stunning. I am extremely grateful to the author and publisher for my proof copy, in exchange for an honest review.
I need to begin by talking about Duggal’s prose. From the first page, I was mesmerised by the beauty of the writing, the crystalline precision of the carefully wrought sentences, as if each word had been painstakingly carved out of ice or glass. It is a wonderful, freeing feeling as a reader to sense that you are in exceptional hands from the moment you start reading. I was happy to give myself over to the story immediately. There is nothing pretentious about the prose, nothing purpled or excessive – it is clean, delicate, exact, showing the same kind of respect for words as the writer shows for her characters.
The use of multiple points of view works incredibly well in this novel. We open with Jimmy’s story, and he is, in many ways, at the heart of the novel. As we switch to different characters’ perspectives, we see him through their eyes. To Ebele, he is a threat, lurking too close to their home as he shelters in the wreck of a car. To Nikos, he is a nuisance. To Rayya, he is an object of compassion, and the recipient of her surplus of unused maternal energy. And to Tuli, Ebele’s young daughter, and one of my favourite characters in the book, he is Storyman, a visitor from the world of imagination.
Perspective and subjectivity is handled so brilliantly in this book; characters are more than they seem on the surface, their complexities revealing themselves to the reader and to some, though not all, of the other personages in the story, so that sympathy ebbs and flows between the characters and the reader in a delicate balance. Nikos and Ebele, and even at times Jimmy himself, present themselves to the world as harsh, abrasive, hard to like, but a gradual thread of understanding is woven through their backstories and their interactions. As with everything in Should We Fall Behind, this is cleverly and subtly done; there are no simplistic redemption arcs or pat happy endings here. Similarly, two of the most sympathetic characters, Betwa and Daban, are not given named point of view chapters, and the absence of their perspective is just as revealing as the presence of other points of view. Daban’s goodness and kindness is echoed in Rayya’s generosity and in Tuli’s innocence – he is there in their actions, almost, for me, taking on a more symbolic role. Betwa, too, is less of a physical presence, and the contrast between the news stories that circulate and the memories of her that Jimmy holds onto feels significant.
For me, this book is about radical empathy. It is about understanding without sentimentality, affording dignity and respect to people whose voices are too often silenced. I strongly feel that this novel is a powerful antidote to sensationalist news stories: the often tragic events of these characters’ lives are handled with sensitivity and a lack of drama that strikes me as not only compassionate but respectful. This book is not a twee morality tale about embracing our shared humanity in a big group hug; it is a quiet call to lay down arms and consider why we put up such barriers between ourselves and those we view as ‘other’. It feels deeply important, relevant and hugely intelligently rendered. I can’t recommend this book highly enough; it is one that will stay with me for a very long time.
Should We Fall Behind by Sharon Duggal is published by Bluemoose Books in October, and is available to order here.