Stephanie Jones: Book Review - This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell

Publish Date
Thursday, 26 May 2016, 5:51PM
By Stephanie Jones

A novel with the rhythm and tone of a collection of intertwining short stories, Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must Be the Place centres on Daniel Sullivan, an American linguistics professor married to Claudette Wells, a half-French actress and film star who, at the height of her career, disappeared herself and her young son from his director father and the public eye. The couple and their young children, Marithe and Calvin, live, at Claudette’s insistence, in an isolated house (12 gates from the nearest road, to Daniel’s unconcealed chagrin) in a barely populated Irish village. 

There is something unsteady about this union, quite apart from both adult parties having a history of flight. Daniel’s first foray into marriage produced Niall and Phoebe, whom we meet first as youngsters and again later, as O’Farrell’s non-linear narrative dips and weaves to envelop Daniel and Claudette’s families, friends and lovers, and their secrets and tragedies.

The worst of the latter, for Daniel, is the death of his university girlfriend, Nicola Janks, a media figure of some notoriety whom Daniel betrays horribly and with whom he later has a fraught reunion at a wedding in rural Scotland. These events follow the exposition of Daniel’s two lives as a family man, and therefore confirm rather than undermine the impression of him as unruly and unreliable. As mothers are wont to do, Daniel’s excuses him, musing that he “guesses and divines too much about people”, as if that makes them hard to love, rather than the reverse.

O’Farrell’s portrait of Daniel as a scarred, flawed husband is searing and exact, his uncontrolled passions driving him sometimes to heartfelt if futile action – such as when, agonized by Niall’s suffering from severe eczema, he defaces a hospital poster – and on other occasions to heartless abandonment of all responsibility. He returns to New York for the 90th birthday of his father only at the behest of his sisters, and spends the journey calculating how soon he can leave.

In contrast, Claudette is opaque, a mystery even to those closest to her. A collection of memorabilia for auction makes for a nifty piece of visual play by O’Farrell and hints at the deterioration that precipitated what turns out to be repetitive behaviour, “her specialty . . . the mysterious, comprehensive and complete disappearance.”

The length of This Must Be the Place – nearly 500 pages – and its full cast impede its conclusion from landing with the same devastating force as the climax of O’Farrell’s 2007 novel, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, but the author’s considerable powers have not waned. O’Farrell is a wizard of voice and perspective, leaping nimbly between person, place and time without sacrificing a skerrick of momentum. She summons the scene of a baby’s adoption in Chengdu, impossible love at first sight in wartime Brooklyn, and romantic and familial reckonings across the globe without showing the strings.

The mesmeric tint of this storytelling makes it easy to forgive the occasional slip into excessively fragrant language: “Did her chemically stalled ovary see its chance and let slip a minuscule gamete into her waiting, pillowy, elastic-sided pouch?” For the most part, the multitude of voices is not cacophonous but insistent, frequently seductive, O’Farrell spinning a web that encases the reader in the precise place she wants you to be. 

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