Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls

Reviewed by Rod McLary

That I shall say goodnight til it be morrow.
Parting is such sweet sorrow.
Romeo and Juliet. Act 2:scene 2.

Shakespeare’s play does not provide only the title for David Nicholls’ most recent book, it also provides the structure on which the plot hangs.

In a thoroughly creative and imaginative way, the author sets the action of his novel around the preparations for a performance of the play by an amateur theatrical group – The Full Fathom Five Theatrical Cooperative [an allusion to the poem by Shakespeare of course].  Members of the group include Fran – who is to play Juliet – and will soon include Charlie who is not quite lead actor material but still is given a walk-on part.  Fran and Charlie are both 16 and have just finished school for the year.  Both are waiting for their exam results which will help determine their futures.

Charlie is a sensitive and troubled young man.  His parents have separated acrimoniously with his young sister going with his mother and Charlie remaining with his father.  The author very skilfully describes, through Charlie’s eyes and his voice, the paradox of wanting his parents to be together again but hating the way they interact and communicate when they are together. 

His father is depressed, drinks far too much and takes a random mixture of licit drugs.  He spends his days either crying or shouting.  While he loves his father, Charlie is simply not able – and not yet mature enough – to cope with and manage his father’s moods and behaviour.  As Charlie says to himself, at his age, he should not be obliged to care for his father.  Consequently, Charlie avoids going home as often as he can.  As he says – ‘My house had my mad dad and a lot of rare jazz on vinyl.  Even I didn’t want to go there’ [27].

It is while Charlie is roaming the countryside to put off the hour when he will be obliged to return to his father, that he accidentally meets Fran.  He is entranced – he thinks Fran is ‘lovely’ and for him ‘it was inconceivable that [he] would not see that face again’ [49].  But – Fran is a member of the theatre group which is performing Romeo and Juliet and now the group wants him to join.

Somewhat reluctantly, Charlie agrees to join the group if for no other reason but to pursue a relationship with Fran. The novel explores the developing relationship between the two young protagonists which runs in parallel with the rehearsals of the play.  As Fran helps Charlie learn his lines and learns to speak them as they were meant to be spoken, the reader also learns about the poetry of Shakespeare and the methods used by actors to deconstruct the meaning of the words to assist them in reaching the lines innate rhythm.  This is not as didactic as it sounds – these interactions between Charlie and Fran are very moving and the reader feels, along with them, their deepening love.

Charlie is also one of a small group of teenage boys who have been friends for years.  The author sensitively and accurately explores the nature of male teenage friendships and how genuine affection between these boys is masked by boisterous behaviour, name-calling and avoidance of anything ‘soft’.  It also accurately depicts the falling-off of those friendships when a boy:girl relationship begins to develop.  Charlie particularly feels the loss of his friendship with his closest friend Harper and says about him:

In the chaos of our family’s self-destruction he had quietly and unassumingly made himself present and although I could hardly recall a conversation that might be considered personal or honest, in the strange, mute semaphore of teenage boys he’d communicated a sense of care and somehow passed on a message to the others, an unspoken command to be, if not kind, then not actively cruel. [185-186].

There is an unassuming humour in this book – it is not laugh-out-loud but Charlie in particular has a self-deprecating and rather endearing manner about him.  He says about doing his French homework with his mother:

And so she would panic at my lack of knowledge, and I would blank because of her panic, and she would panic at my blanking, and voices would be raised and one or other of us would storm out in scenes unheard of in the Cottage Loaf [197].

There is also, at the heart of the book, a warmth and a sadness – warmth for the characters who populate the book [especially Charlie and Fran] and a sadness for the passage of time, the changing of relationships, the losses which form part of everyday life, and for the transient freshness and excitement of first loves.  As the title says, it is such ‘sweet sorrow’.

David Nicholls has written a beautiful book about what happened one summer in 1997.

David Nicholls is a best-selling author and his books have sold over 8 million copies.  His book Us was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.  He was named the UK Author of the Year at the 2014 National Book Awards.

Sweet Sorrow


by David Nicholls

Hodder and Stoughton

ISBN 978 1 444 71541 5

392pp; $32.99

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