Louise Doughty’s Whatever You Love
London: Faber & Faber, 2010

(Looking for a swallow rather than a full glass? ORANGE Squirt below.)

Readers fall hard into Louise Doughty’s sixth novel. The emotional intensity in Whatever You Love is pervasive: even when the root of that intensity is character rather than plot, the drive to turn the pages is consistent.

The first sentence on the cover flap gives away one aspect of that emotional intensity and, to be fair, readers would have learned of this tragedy within the novel’s opening pages anyhow: Laura’s nine-year-old daughter, Betty, has been killed. She has been struck by a car while crossing a street after dance practice.

So it’s no surprise that this novel will be preoccupied with Laura’s need to accept a loss. Whatever You Love is about love and grief, in equal proportions.

“I wore out my images of [her] and then had to see [her] again to get a fresh set, only to find the old ones coming back again the minute we were apart, tumbling together and breaking apart like the shards of colour in a kaleidoscope.”

Actually, this passage appears in the novel with “him”s where I’ve inserted “her”s. In the novel, this passage appears in Laura’s recollections of the early days of her relationship with David, the man she would later marry, Betty’s father.

But Laura is haunted not only by the loss of her daughter, Betty, but by the dissolution of her marriage to Betty’s father.

And this loss, an older one but a vital blow, forces Laura to seek out images from the past, her memories, to manage their coalescence and their fragmentation.

Memories of Betty and memories of the earlier, happier days of her marriage to David are both double-sided in Laura’s experience; they offer a certain kind of comfort and relief, but simultaneously taunt her.

Laura’s losses, raw and devastating, force her to re-cast her past experiences and this process adds substantially to the novel’s emotional intensity. The shifts in narrative, back to the past and returning to the present, are solidly rooted in their respective times, but the overlap emotionally is heady.

“He pulled me back, away from the cliff edge, and turned me to him, then held me out at arm’s length. I was shuddering from the cold, from fear, from disbelief. There was a moment when we stared at each other — him still holding me away from him. I gazed back, a question in my look. He gave the smallest of nods. I burst into tears.”

So it’s not surprising: this is not a light and easy story. But the author’s matter-of-fact prose, clean and exact, makes Laura’s experiences accessible for the reader.

Even the raw grief in the wake of Betty’s death is described succinctly.

“I enter one of the recurrent moments I have been having, a moment of simple pain. Most of the time, the knowledge of Betty’s absence is a complicated pain, a pain admixture of anger and confusion and disbelief: but every now and then, there is a moment like this — pain as unalloyed as a sliver of glass, a moment when I cannot believe that I do not die of it as surely as I would die if someone thrust a very think knife through my chest and out the other side.”

Whatever You Love began in violence, in an act which results in death, which unfolds immediately before the novel begins. And, throughout the novel, there are frequent and pointed references to death and suicide.

It’s a challenging theme for the reader; Laura is at her most vulnerable, and her innermost thoughts are unfiltered.

At times this can be overwhelming. When the police officer assigned to monitor Laura’s coping abilities in the wake of Betty’s death distinguishes between those who cope successfully with traumatic loss and those who do not, readers are unsure where Laura falls.

Neither the officer nor Laura is sure either and, as the degree of uncertainly increases, the thread of the narrative splits. It’s a bit disorienting, but it reflects Laura’s state of mind perfectly.

“This driver, this faceless, mythical creature whom I have refused to admit into my thinking is no longer some shadowy thing, a grey ghost who came and took my Betty. He is taking shape, acquiring substance with each new detail that I learn about him.”

But just as some things begin to take shape for Laura, other things begin to splinter. This process, this continued dissolution, maintains the novel’s suspense, as the reader follows Laura into the heart of her despair.

In her book, A Novel in a Year, Louise Doughty describes the process of developing a novel’s plot as follows:

“A plot is not an idea, it is a whole mass of ideas, often in conflict with each other, which are expressed by a series of events. To have enough material for a whole novel, you have to be prepared to look way beyond your original idea, beyond yourself, to give it context and development, and above all to introduce the possibility of change.”

Reading Whatever You Love, it’s as though Louise Doughty has perfectly executed her own advice. A reader might be tempted to say that this novel is about a single idea, about a mother trying to cope with the death of her young daughter. But there are a whole mass of ideas in conflict with each other in this story as the grieving and the loving spiral across the pages, and the string of related events, as Laura realizes over time, is long and complex.

Perhaps most significantly however, given the dark and sorrowful aspects of this story, is that Louise Doughty has not overlooked “the possibility of change” in Whatever You Love. It is a powerful story, told simply and told well.

ORANGE Squirt 2011: Book 5 of 20 (Louise Doughty)

Originality Familiar story, sadly: grieving a loved one’s loss
Readability Compelling, suspenseful
Author’s voice Vivid, engaging
Narrative structure Clearly marked Before and After segments
Gaffes Some typos: Spellcheck cannot replace a good copyeditor
Expectations Sixth novel, established storyteller