Ruth Heald – 27
Disclosure: I stayed up way beyond my bed time on a working night to finish this novel – I had bonded with the characters and needed to know how their stories turned out.
Hook: “Dave’s twenty-seventh birthday started well, but then went downhill quickly.” He gets fired on page 2.
Summary: A group of university friends in London have all reached the age of 27 and find that their extended adolescence is coming to an abrupt end. Renee, a lawyer who loses her husband to divorce and gets a chance to find herself through various pleasant and less pleasant adventures did ‘everything right’ but has so far failed to get the promised reward. Although they all have a good education and what would generally be thought of as a good start in life, they are now somewhat unexpectedly (to them) faced with the underlying realities – career disasters, divorce, abuse, death and criminal activities of various kinds seem to hit them all at once.
The book is structured in short chapters of two or three pages, each told from the perspective of a different ‘27’, six of them altogether. This means that there is a minor cliffhanger every few minutes of your reading time, and then you get the surprise of which character takes up the narration. I was particularly captivated by the stories of James, a successful business man without a degree but with a fatal weakness and Sam, a shy librarian who cannot believe she is going to get married. Those two really run into life issues in a big, dramatic way, while others are able to navigate theirs a little more easily. But all stories have a dynamic progression and a classical outcome.
What I liked very much about this book was how the little things in life make all the difference. Food, weather, little annoyances, bad luck, near misses and regrets all influence the direction of people’s lives. Interestingly, the biggest of those little things turns out to be the London housing situation. Although many of the characters have good jobs (Dave is the exception), they are condemned to a miserable and somewhat unsavoury existence as unwanted guests or in shared houses if they leave the comfort of a double income mortgage. Their only other option is to go back and live with their parents who seem to exist in a different, much calmer universe. The 27s are thrown around between anxiety and giving up, but in most of the stories they are able to interpret what happens to them as life lessons and construct a better future.
One interesting result of making the age of 27 the main concept of the book is what it does to characters who are not 27. Apart from the ubiquitous parents who seem in some way to be semi-detached aspects of the 27s, the three main characters who are significantly older or younger than the 27s in whose stories they appear all are connected not just with disaster but with serious crime. This contributes to the feeling that life is somehow ordered into age grades and that relationships transgressing those grades are wrong , a theme which the author implicitly pursues in a slightly controversial subplot. Personally I am a little puzzled by that idea and I am also, more generally, not sure that the same stories could not have happened to characters aged 26 or 28. If there is a magical element to the age of 27 the book does not really make that case.
However, it does remind me of the so-called ‘quarter life crisis’ as described by Erikson and Goldstein, and my own period of feeling "lost, scared, lonely or confused" as they describe the typical experience of that crisis, in my mid-twenties when I realised that, among other unpleasant things, I was personally going to die.
This period in our psychological development is often overlooked but I agree with the author that it is significant and life changing, even without the dramatic events that befall some of her characters.
One of the reasons why I was able to read the book in one (admittedly hugely extended) evening was because of its accessible, entertaining style. Ruth Heald’s writing flows smoothly and always serves the plot. Her style is simple, subtle and quintessentially English. There are plenty of amusing observations but the book always stops short of outright comedy. Tragic events are told from a close, personal perspective and with a certain spare understatement that avoids sentimentality.
In spite of considerable earlier successes that could have opened some doors for her, the author has chosen to publish her first novel outside the traditional main stream publishers. There are many arguments for that in the present situation, including more artistic control and a fairer share of the revenue. She also has some experience with online publishing as editor and owner of onestopstory.com, a short story website and app, so it will be very interesting to see what happens to the book’s publishing journey.
I certainly enjoyed reading ‘27’ and am looking forward to Ruth’s next novel.
I just need to make sure I get mornings off.