Saturday, 4 June 2011

Everything You Know (Zoe Heller)

--The blurb--
"Willy Muller has survived imprisonment for murdering his wife, years of hate mail from the public, and, most recently, the suicide of his daughter, Sadie. While recuperating from a heart attack, he finds himself drawn into the lonely world of his late daughter's diaries."

--The review--
Perhaps best known for her successful thriller Notes On A Scandal, which was turned into a bestselling film starring Cate Blanchett and Judy Dench, it is therefore arguably unsurprising that the author should have kept us all on our toes throughout her publishing career, with Everything You Know, her first novel, being no exception. The humour of Willy's compatriots balance out well the grisliness of Willy's own background and family; we read on not quite knowing how, or if, equilibrium will be reached.

The slightly engaging and yet slightly pathetic consonant protagonist, Willy Muller, keeps us hanging on by not letting us know until the very end whether he has been accused and subsequently imprisoned rightfully or wrongfully, and yet in spite of this suspense, when we are told the truth, we are not surprised - this being perhaps a testament to the skills of Ms Heller in building up character. Simultaneously, though, we are coached to believe that Muller is not necessarily a reliable narrator, and that therefore his confession may also be untrue. His relationships with his two daughters and their children have encompassed the whole spectrum of bad to nonexistent; why should his relationship with his readers be any more reliable?

Heller paints with scary precision and possible degrees of offensiveness a picture of Britain's lower classes, and, with equal accuracy, the own discomfort and prejudices felt (again, rightly or wrongly) by those seeing them from 'the other side'. Everything You Know, as with other books that I have read recently, seems to have as its principal message the idea that even if we do not follow in the exact same vein as our parents, they have the potential to make or break us more than any other influence. In the framework of this idea, then, it is thus natural that following on from Willy Muller's own shipwrecked life, his daughters' lives would be disadvantaged in their own ways (Sophie, by falling into a lifestyle controlled by drugs; Sadie, by becoming depressed and eventually committing suicide). However, Sadie's feelings that led to her suicide are not fully shed light on even by her diaries, which highlights the problem of how much is told about a single life (and brings us back round again to the problem of Willy's reliability as a narrator). The title of the book seeming to me to be too contrived, something about how much is revealed about someone, and in what way(s), may have been a better fit.

Strangely, while the novel is engrossing throughout, I suspect that this is mainly because we wish to find out the truth of the matter of Willy's imprisonment. Once this has been revealed, the book becomes forgettable, in spite of its ending of hope and empowerment. Ultimately the ideas that Heller presents are not new or original, even if the way in which they are presented is different: she may as well have prefaced the book with Philip Larkin's This Be The Verse ("They fuck you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do...") and been done with it.

Other works by Zoe Heller
Notes On A Scandal (2003)
The Believers (2008)

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