Maggie O'Farrell's unsatisfying third novel is a love story in which the lovers do not meet for nearly 200 pages. A delay can enhance a love story, but despite having all the ingredients of suspense, O'Farrell's tale lacks momentum.
The lovers are two wandering misfits, Jake Kildoune and Stella Gilmore. Stella leads a tepid life in London as a radio producer. The product of a passing encounter between two British hippies, Jake has never met his father and was brought up in Hong Kong by his mother. Both Stella and Jake are obsessed by the past: she has a guilty conscience and he is curious about his father.
In a dramatic opening reminiscent of After You'd Gone, O'Farrell's first novel, The Distance Between Us begins with two disturbing incidents. In a crowd celebrating Chinese New Year, Jake's girlfriend, Mel, is nearly crushed to death. Meanwhile, in London, the sight of a red-headed stranger on the street mysteriously horrifies Stella. She quits her job and takes up work at a bed-and-breakfast in Kildoune, a remote corner of Scotland. In Hong Kong, believing that Mel cannot last the night, Jake agrees to marry her. To his dismay, she survives, and he accompanies her to England so she can convalesce and visit her parents. It is partly to escape her that he decides to visit Kildoune, his father's home, and the place that gives him his surname. The reader has been waiting for the two storylines to come together and this is where - you guessed it - he finally meets Stella.
Jake and Stella are both what Stella calls "hyphenated people", the children of immigrants (she is Scots-Italian to his British-Chinese). Jake's reflections on the residents of Hong Kong might apply to the characters, who are all wanderers in one way or another: "They're all in varying degrees of separation, or running away from something, or in search of an elusive element that might complete them."
O'Farrell has been celebrated for her limpid poetic style, but there are rather too many cliches here. The hero's hair "stands up as if he's been electrocuted" and Stella and her sister lie "head to toe, like sar-dines fitted into a tin". Perhaps O'Farrell intended to mimic the vagaries of memory, but the result is a confusing collection of scenes, veering about in time (and from past to present tense) apparently at random. Although the past is a major theme, the narrative's dependence on flashbacks weighs the story down.
In the same way, O'Farrell lurches from one character to another, dipping inside the heads of even the most minor players. It is a shame she did not restrict herself to the lovers' points of view. As it is, the novel is too crowded for us to get to know them properly. The abrupt shifts in perspective underscore the theme of displacement, throwing the reader repeatedly off balance in the way that travel does. But just as a novelist preoccupied with boredom must find a way to write about it without making readers bored, so a novelist preoccupied with displacement must find a way to write about it without making readers feel ill at ease.