Matthew Thomas’ debut novel, We Are Not Ourselves, gripped me from page one through to the end, and it has had me thinking about it and talking about it ever since. The book tells the story of Eileen from the time she is in the fourth grade in 1951, through her teenage years, education, career, and into her marriage and motherhood, exploring love, loss, disappointment, joy, prejudice, fear, motivation and duty. Along her journey, you meet her husband, Ed, and son, Connell, whom you also get to know intimately.
As a reader, you are offered the opportunity to view the world through both Eileen and Connell. Through the compelling and reflection-provoking narrative, it is easy to appreciate why Eileen is so incapable of openly expressing her feelings and love for her family, and you understand and empathize with Connell’s apparent disregard for the “perfect” life and need to get away.
In some ways, I find myself struggling to write a summary of this book for fear of revealing even the smallest plot detail. For me, everything about this book felt like home, and I don’t want to take that feeling of familiarity, surprise or family away from any future readers, and I hope everyone who reads this review becomes one.
The life lesson oft quoted “you never know what you have until it’s gone” is likely the most poignant that I’ve ever heard. That specific lesson causes the deepest reflections for me, and I’m sure that I’m not alone in taking things for granted from time-to-time. Matthew Thomas reminds us that the constant struggle to achieve the life that we deem perfect will eventually lead us to the heartbreaking realization that everything we had was always perfect, and we should have spent more time appreciating it all while we had it.
The author welcomes you into the minds of his characters with an unflinching portrayal of their innermost fears, thoughts and emotions.
The title, We Are Not Ourselves, is beautifully aware. As we go through life, we find that our emotions and circumstances lead us to decisions and behaviours that we do not recognize in ourselves. Everyone in the world has moments where they feel unlike themselves, and thus, the tittle is not only beautifully aware but beautifully real.
The pacing of the book spans decades, and the chapters are strung together in what appears a seamless transition. I found this style of writing to be inspiring and compelling both as a writer and a reader. I feel like I’ve known these families since before I was born.
This book has both inspired and terrified me on my own journey as I write my first novel. At times, I am inspired with new ways to arrange the pace and the narrative within my own novel. At other times, I am so taken by the incredible flow and use of language that I feel inadequate yet compelled to continue reaching. Chapters that were included in We Are Not Ourselves remind me that I need to include scenes and chapters that simply bring the reader into the characters and their stories. I have been writing with the intent of having every chapter be wrought with deep meaning and direct links to the climatic portion of the book. Reading We Are Not Ourselves reminded me of the importance of slowing down to allow readers to get to know the characters and the reasons for their existence in the story.
That makes twice that Matthew Thomas has reminded me that it’s about the journey, not the destination.
Title of novel: We Are Not Ourselves
Author: Matthew Thomas
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by: Sean Kerr