Review: The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life – William Nicholson

I don’t know how I missed The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life when it was published in 2009, but when it was followed over the next two or three years by a second and third book (All The Hopeful Lovers and The Golden Hour) the trilogy caught my attention, not least because it is based in the county of Sussex where I live.

When I eventually picked up this book this summer I found that I was staying up into the early hours to finish it.  What a joy that I could then start the next volume, race through that and then read the third – all in two weeks holiday in France.  Now I find that images of the Loire Valley are permanently overlaid with memories of the difficult marriages, the unruly teens and assertive grand-parents who populate this beguiling saga of contemporary relationships.

The book is based in a fictional village near Lewes, the county town of East Sussex and anyone who knows the area will recognise the idyllic English setting inhabited by a mix of London commuters, local arts and crafts people, retired professionals and less well-off families struggling to survive in this prosperous land of Waitrose stores and private schools.  Nicholson teases locals with his description of the village – we have a very good idea where it is, but there is always something which stops us being too precise in its location.

The book opens with a breakfast scene.  Henry is a television director who is in the midst of fighting political battles over his latest project.  The postman comes and Laura sees an envelope written in the unmistakeable hand-writing of Nick, a lover from years gone by, and postpones opening it until Henry has gone to catch a train.  Will she respond to Nick’s suggestion that they meet up to catch-up after a twenty year gap in their relationship?

Within a few pages we encounter other members of the cast – Liz who sits opposite Henry on the train (a single mother who seems unable to break from her manipulative ex-husband),  Alan a teacher who has a private sexual routine perhaps unfitting for a teacher, Alan, a vicar who’s pastoral concern for his congregation carries on despite his loss of faith and Marion, the unstable woman who dotes on him.  The reader will interact with these and many other people over the next 384 pages (and a further two volumes if you care to).

The book opens with a quotation from Middlemarch: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary Human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence”.  And looking at the Wikipedia article on George Eliot’s book, it is easy to see why Nicholson chose to anchor his book in Eliot’s novel –

(Middlemarch) has multiple plots with a large cast of characters, and in addition to its distinct though interlocking narratives it pursues a number of underlying themes, including the status of women, the nature of marriage, idealism and self-interest, religion and hypocrisy, political reform, and education.

Lewes, East Sussex

Nicholson has the knack of getting behind the superficial events of his people’s lives to describe motivation common to us all, and as I read this I recognised the struggles for personal integrity which underpin so many of our life-choices. Nicholson’s people are above all “real”, and as their underlying attitudes, anxieties and ambitions are laid before us, it is difficult not to identify with these characters and maybe to understand ourselves a little better.  Is not this what fiction is for? – To fill in the gaps our own lives leave out so that we become more understanding of the lives of others, thereby gaining in self-knowledge also?

I liked to many of the characters that its hard to focus in on anyone in particular.  But Alan the Vicar is a particularly sympathetic character who finds that his ministry is made so much easier now that faith has left him and he can set-aside the judgementalism of religion –

What we believe is little more than an accident, really. The accident of where we were born, and when. But times change, and circumstances, and so beliefs change too. No point in telling anyone they’re wrong to believe what they believe. It’s like telling them they’re wrong to have had the life they’ve had.

Henry also has his appeal – sometimes lost in the struggles of middle-age with its vast responsibilities for the lives of others, at one point he thinks “of the unimaginable otherness of other people. We each live in our own world, and our worlds collide, but all we get is a little dented. A little bruised. These bruises our only chance of understanding those who are not ourselves. The precious ache of understanding”.

I find that the mark of a good novel is when the people in the book live on and I experience a sense of loss when I turn the final page.  Jenni Russell wrote of this book in The Sunday Times, (sorry this link has a pay-wall) “he writes . . . with such empathy and shifts one’s perspectives with such unobtrusive skill that he widens one’s sense of what it means to be human. One finishes his books exhilarated by liking and understanding others more than one did before”.  Four months have passed since I read it and I still hanker after knowing what came next in the lives of this finely drawn cast who I became so involved with this summer.

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7 thoughts on “Review: The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life – William Nicholson

  1. Superb commentary Tom.

    Your comment — “Is not this what fiction is for? – To fill in the gaps our own lives leave out so that we become more understanding of the lives of others, thereby gaining in self-knowledge also?” is wise and at least for me, true.

    This sounds like a great book. I have been reading some DH Lawrence in the past few months. The above quote o “Otherness” reminds be of some of Lawrence’s ideas that he presented in “The Rainbow” and “Women in Love”.


  2. I have the first volume on my TBR pile and always mean to read it. I had no idea there were already two sequels. The vicar who has lost faith but found compassion and empathy sounds like agreat charcater.


    • Well Guy, I think you’re going to like it. I found that my appreciation increased the further I progressed through the trilogy. It takes a special kind of authorial skill to manage characters over so many years.


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