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11 May 2016

A novel account of unemployment? How Not Working spins gold from the banal

Lisa Owens' funny, serious debut marks her out as one to watch.

By Alice O'Keeffe

Some people read in order to experience places they would never otherwise go to: the slums of Mumbai, say, or the court of Henry VIII. If you are one of those people, Not Working, the debut novel by Lisa Owens, is probably not the book for you. Its charm is that it is apparently all so entirely familiar. It’s no mean feat to fashion a novel out of the stuff of everyday life: a modestly happy relationship, a nondescript London flat, a minor existential crisis. It takes quite a writer to make such material interesting enough to fill nearly 300 pages – and, fortunately, Owens is quite a writer.

On the surface of it, nothing much happens. Claire Flannery has resigned from her non-job (the exact nature of her old work is never made clear, and perhaps it never was clear, not even to her: marketing? Communications?). The idea is to take a bit of time off, to come up with a plan for a more meaningful and rewarding life. In a different type of book, this might involve some kind of physical or spiritual journey: time at an ashram, or a round-the-world trip. But for Claire the road to enlightenment is paved with daytime telly, desultory web searches, reluctant and financially ruinous trips to the gym, days spent drinking coffee, evenings lost in a fug of wine. Her boyfriend, Luke, is a trainee brain surgeon who infuriates her only by being perfect in every way, even tolerating her preference for slobbing about at home in ancient sportswear, cooking overly elaborate meals and forgetting to do the washing-up.

The narrative takes the form of a succession of short scenes, some as brief as a couple of sentences, each with its own ­heading. (“That’s the spirit: In the park, a tiny dog trots by. In its mouth, a branch four times its size.”) Each one is focused on a moment – shopping at the Co-op, going to the hairdresser’s, discussing progress in her job hunt with Luke. Snatches of dreams and conversations overheard on the Tube are woven through, creating their own mini-stories. It reminded me a little of Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation, which interwove a narrative of relationship breakdown with quotations, reflections and facts. This technique has an affinity with the scattered distractedness of the internet age, and I have mixed feelings about it as one does about the age itself. Although it does capture something of the texture of life now, this comes at the cost of the sort of immersive experience I want from a novel. It’s difficult for a book to be unputdownable when it stops and starts every couple of lines.

But Not Working works (sorry) because there is lots going on beneath its placid, ordinary surface. Claire’s personal angst seems unimportant, set against the apocalyptic world crises – climate change, terrorism, “the Syria thing” – that she does her best not to think about. “No news is good news!” she tells Luke cheerily, refusing his offer of a newspaper. And yet is it so unimportant, for her? In between the gags we get hints of familial unhappiness: a randy grandad, a mother who never really wanted children. We are never certain how bad her mental state is. Has she had a nervous breakdown? Is she depressed? Or is she, as she claims, just taking time out to think about things? We never find out quite what she is looking for. At the end of the novel, we see Claire jogging off happily to a new job. Has she trained as a teacher? Found inner peace? We will never know. Perhaps nothing has changed at all.

From the publicity around this book, it’s clear that the publishers would like Owens to be declared the voice of a generation. It would be lovely if that were the case, as her voice is funny, gentle and forgiving. But I’m not sure. I finished the book feeling that the situation demanded a little more anger and edge. With this funny, serious debut, Lisa Owens has proved that she’s one to watch. In the follow-up, I want to hear her roar. 

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Not Working by Lisa Owens is published by Picador (272pp, £12.99)

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This article appears in the 04 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred