Personal Effects – or how Maggie O’Farrell creates her film star heroine in This Must Be the Place
April 22, 2016
The best writers are surely those who surprise us, and one of the absolute joys of opening a new book by an author like Maggie O’Farrell, who marries such a distinctive tone and emotional directness with a desire to ‘make it new’ every time, is the certainty that there will be surprises in store. Perhaps one of the most delightful discoveries of THIS MUST BE THE PLACE announced itself unassumingly in the manuscript with the words:
Auction Catalogue: Claudette Wells Memorabilia
At this point, on my first reading of the book, all I knew was that Claudette was a recluse with deeply eccentric dress sense, a woman so devoted to her and her family’s privacy that she kept an armed shotgun at their family home in remotest Donegal, and was not afraid to reach for it if photographers came calling. In other words, I knew that she was a force to be reckoned with, a woman with a past or a secret that was worth hiding, or travelling to the wilds of rural Ireland to steal a snapshot of. As soon as I found myself reading the auction catalogue, my brain set to work piecing together these additional pieces of the puzzle: clearly this Claudette had once been a star of such magnitude that her student diary or an old pair of trainers was a prize worth bidding for, that she had fans desperate to own the imprint of her lips on a paper tissue. The effect of this upon the reader is as heady and immediate as a spell – in only a few words Maggie creates a powerful sense of Claudette’s allure, and allows us to glimpse the process of her rise from obscurity to rather scandalous celebrity in a way that keeps our sympathies clearly with Claudette (her taste in trainers is exemplary and on the evidence of the letters and faxes she has a dry wit and inspires devotion in friends and family alike) and neatly sidesteps any of the clichés of the rags to riches story.
In that tantalising first draft of the manuscript, there were no pictures, but it soon became apparent that Maggie had enjoyed the process of fabricating evidence of the existence of an imaginary celebrity so much that she was prepared to take the game further, and produce the photographs herself. Soon I was receiving intriguing e-mails like this:
Which Maggie, who happens to be an ace with a Leica, had soon transformed to this:
And with the help of the ‘headless lady’ (a borrowed dressmaker’s dummy), to this:
There was something particularly intimate about seeing the love story between Claudette and Timou Lindstrom (whom we know from the opening chapter of the book is no longer Claudette’s partner) unfold in letters and faxes, apparently in their actual handwriting. For me there is something particularly poignant about the fact that similarly sweet and flirtatious notes in this day and age would be exchanged via e-mail or text, and so wouldn’t likely be preserved. The combination of the winning tone of these letters and their life-likeness increases our emotional investment: we care about Claudette and Timou, we have hopes for them. So why, we begin to ask ourselves as the chapter draws to a close, are they apparently no longer together. Why did it all go wrong? Why did Claudette apparently chose to walk away from both love story and dazzling cinematic career?
THIS MUST BE THE PLACE is Maggie O’Farrell’s most daring and deft novel in terms of its structure. She has said that she wanted to rip up the rule book, and so we have a novel narrated by a whole cast of characters that unfolds between fifteen locations, ranging from Donegal to Bolivia. Yet for all its ingenuity, it is probably the most gripping of her novels: five hundred pages race by because she makes us care about her characters, and their happiness, so deeply, and because the portrait she builds of their lives is so textured and closely observed For me, the auction catalogue absolutely typifies what is so irresistibly special about this novel: at once an elaborate metafictional game, and a delightfully old-fashioned exercise in character building (imagine what your character would be buying in a supermarket in the evening in late 1990…) that works a storytelling magic of the most intoxicating sort. We can’t quite shake off that feeling that the woman who wore the dress and listened to the mix-tape we see pictured must have existed, which only makes us hungrier to understand why she makes the choices and decisions she does. My little bet is that Claudette Wells will prove to be one of Maggie O’Farrell’s most enduring fictional heroines as a result. And though I’ll never get to hear what was on that tape, or watch one of her films, I’ll have the best fun imagining them.