I only realised by reading the bio at the start of this book that A.M. Homes is the author of The Safety of Objects – which has been made into a film that I really enjoyed. The film brings together a cast of ordinary suburban characters, linked by their proximity and a tragic car accident. It’s a depiction of the way people surround themselves with objects and roles to fulfill, in order to cope with the tragedies large and small. I really appreciated the way each character’s motivations are laid bare but not criticised, as the characters are pretty good at doing that for themselves. It all sounds rather glum but ends with some transcendence for most of them, as they eventually find shelter in each other.

So I was rather optimistic about This book will save your life.

We learn early on that Richard Novak has a comfortable life, he made plenty of money in the share market and now spends his days at home. His carefully orchestrated life is based on routine, and surrounding himself with people who take care of the mundane tasks like housekeeping, preparing nutritious meals and exercise regimes – and minimise the necessity to get involved or look for pursuits outside of his daily study of the patterns of the stock market. Each morning he dons his noise-cancelling headphones and gets on with it, until one morning:

After years of making sure that he is left alone, he is suddenly afraid to be alone, afraid not to hear, not to feel, not to notice.”
The cause of this shift, his experiences in the previous 24 hours, recounts the excruciating pain which culminates in being rushed to hospital, undergoing inconclusive tests and on his way home in the small hours, stopping at a doughnut shop where he makes an unlikely friend.

So begins the journey, where people, both known and new, and even the landscape all require Richard Novak to engage and navigate his way through unexpected and ever-changing events. And he does so admirably, getting to know his employees, neighbours, family and of course himself better. At each turn Richard keeps facing up to challenges and attempts to come to terms with how he got to this point in his life.

The story is set in L.A., a city in which the precipitous landscape of the area also plays a part in events. The characters – the immigrant doughnut shop owner, the famous actor neighbour, the macrobiotic nutritionist, the reclusive author, the internist who gives zen-like advice, and of course Richard, represent the diversity of the city and the American dream it embodies. All these signposts, the familiar self-help remedies, the difficult father-son relationship, point to larger issues which we can choose to make something of or not –

as the reclusive writer Nic says “We live in a time when no one wants to remember. We pretend we are where it starts. Look at the way we live—we build houses on cliffs, on fault lines, in the path of things, and when something happens, we build it again right on the same spot, bigger, better. . . Fallout accumulates. What we’ve got now is a blend of fact and fiction that we’re agreeing to call reality.”

What I most admired about this book was the opportunity to witness people’s everyday struggles to do the right thing. It is narrated without criticism or judgement, and the humour is derived from genuine human foibles. There are no easy fixes in this novel and Richard is left literally floating, but definitely present as he assures his son “I’m here,” he says, “I’ll always be here, even when you can’t see me, I’m still here.”

My positive take on the book was further confirmed in this interview from the Independent where Homes is asked about the vice-like pain – physical, existential, psychic – that seizes Novak in the opening pages of This Book Will Save Your Life but in effect liberates him from his emotional prison. Had Homes known such pain herself, readers wondered. She jokes about paper cuts and the use of the imagination, but then says, “Yes, I’ve been in that much pain. I’m constantly in that much pain. Life fills you with that much pain… It’s a question of what you do with it. I’ve worked to be compassionate, a participant in my world, to not close my eyes to things and to be present and accountable. At the same time, that leaves you incredibly vulnerable and open to excruciating pain. But I don’t know that there’s a better way.”

This book will save your life – it is funny, poignant and deftly illustrates E.M. Forster’s guiding principle “only connect”. Just don’t expect it to spell out how, that’s up to each of us.

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