Zoe Venditozzi’s Anywhere’s Better Than Here is a novel with a premise which will be all too familiar to a lot of readers. Anyone who has ever been in a relationship which has lost its vitality, or which has become merely a mutual existence, will recognise all too clearly the situation which unfolds. As Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer says in Annie Hall, ‘A relationship, I think, is like a shark, you know? It has to move forward or it dies’. In the case of the central character Laurie and her boyfriend Ed, what they have is a dead shark.
The novel opens with Laurie in the supermarket considering soup and the merits of ‘Easy Cheese’, and counting the minutes until Neighbours. In the pages that follow, Venditozzi details someone who isn’t sure what she wants, she’s just sure she doesn’t want this. She returns home, once more, to Ed, a man-ish boy who seems forever parked in front of his games console, hypnotised by the cartoon violence on screen. You could describe Ed as passive/aggressive, but his aggression is by proxy. His passion, if you could call it that, seems so focussed in one direction that Laurie doesn’t get a look in.
After leaving the house, Laurie meets Gerry, a mysterious ex-soldier, in a local but unfamiliar pub into which she escapes. This is her stepping through the looking glass, the moment where a change of surroundings signify a determination to change her life. You do get the feeling that at this moment she would have struck up conversation with the first person to catch her eye, and it is her misfortune that Gerry proves to have a life at least as complex as she does, with a few hidden extras as well. Her relationship with the older Gerry could have been a terrible cliche, but his reticence to open up about the secrets he holds, and her refusal to invest completely in this man, stops that from happening.
This is not always an easy read, and I’m presuming it was not always an easy write. Laurie’s pain is palpable as she is at a loss as to what to do. She finds herself having an affair, not exactly by accident, that would be naive, but almost because there is nothing else to do. She can’t live with Ed, but she’s not quite sure how to live without him, and she needs something or someone to bring matters to a head. What is interesting is that when this does happen, the novel changes pace as Laurie and Gerry are swept along by the need to try and do something right. That something comes in the form of Jamie, a young man who has been involved in an accident, and although readers will work out what’s going on some time before Laurie and Gerry do, it doesn’t matter as Laurie’s life will never be the same again, no matter what happens.
This is a brave novel, as all three central characters are not easy to like, and where your sympathies lie will probably depend which player in this drama you most identify with. However, you are wrong if you judge Laurie harshly. She is as much a heroine for our times as Joy Stone in Janice Galloway’s The Trick Is To Keep Breathing or Myrna in Zoe Strachan’s Spin Cycle in that it is not what they do which is heroic, far from it, but it is how they deal with how life unfolds, or even fail to deal with it. With Laurie, it is the humanity in the writing which means that you are on her side even as she makes the wrong decisions.
This is an eternal, yet very contemporary, tale of people who have ticked the boxes on a checklist of what it means to be a ‘grown-up’, without actually having grown up. Never is this clearer than when members of an older generation appear near the end of the novel to take control of a situation which has gotten out of hand. They make the younger adults appear childish, or rather child-like. Perhaps this is the most damming comment that Venditozzi makes; that this is a generation which is so determined to hold on to some abstract ideal of youth that the idea of committing to anything is terrifying. These are people who are lost in a world which they don’t understand.
If you have just entered a new relationship, then I don’t think you should dip into Anywhere’s Better Than Here at the moment as it maybe too stark a tale at this time, but it’s worth remembering the book as the chances are, eventually, you will have empathy with these characters, if you haven’t already. Am I being cynical and world weary, or just realistic? I let you decide, but I think you know the answer.
Here’s a clip of Zoe Venditozzi reading from Anywhere’s Better Than Here: