Ever Fallen In Love by Zoe Strachan
Zoe Strachan’s eagerly awaited third novel, Ever Fallen In Love, resonates with themes of identity and sexuality that have come to characterise not only her own writing, but that of the new wave of Scottish novelists who have emerged in recent years. The dual narrative, with one half set in a remote village in the Highlands and the other half in an unnamed Scottish university town, describes the student days of Richard and his shady but desirable friend Luke. While we become aware of a tragedy looming on the horizon for the student version of Richard, the second narrative shows us Richard ten years on, retreating from life and living as quietly as he is able.
The central relationship between Richard and Luke develops familiarly into that between the impressionable young student and the idolized bad-boy, complete with his scruffy hair, endless cigarettes and flamboyant sexual conquests. The stakes are upped regularly, with Luke leading Richard into drink and drugs, through joy riding and beyond, with Richard’s interest in him moving through lust towards something approaching love, and his boundaries, moral and sexual, shifting ever outwards as a consequence. Meanwhile, the older Richard’s sister comes to visit him in the Highlands, shaking up his hermit-like life and prompting recollections of his student days.
Following on from Negative Space, a debut filled with brutal emotion, and the weirdly intriguing cast of her second novel Spin Cycle, Ever Fallen In Love is Strachan’s most accessible novel to date. That’s not to say there are no challenging scenes here – as ever, Strachan is unflinching in her depiction of humanity’s more questionable impulses – but with the students, the sex, the drugs and the dead girl, there is also a recognition of where we’re at. The plot is carefully paced to keep the reader gripped and the wellplaced hooks are effective. This is a tight and well-constructed novel. Chapters alternate between the two narratives, a device that keeps us reading fast, but Strachan surprises us with a matter-of-fact summation partway through the book when Richard tells his sister: “I was at uni, with Luke. There was a sort of accident. Somebody died. We both got chucked out.” Except, of course, that’s not all that happened, and this book is about more than a page-turning plot.
It is clear how the Scottish landscape influences Strachan’s writing. The setting is vivid, with drenching downpours and wild seas mixing with beautiful shores and panoramas. The contrasting university town has its fair share of atmosphere too, with its abandoned castle and student digs, not to mention the simmering antagonism between the locals and the ‘Yahs,’ with Richard and Luke stuck somewhere in the middle. Older Richard works as a morally aware and sometimes morally compromised programmer for computer games, designing Somme, a wwi shoot-em-up with a conscience of sorts and a woman in the trenches pretending to be a man. That, combined with the subplot between Richard, his sister and his sister’s friend Lauren, adds another level to the story and allows for some interesting asides.
Ever Fallen In Love doesn’t quite have the red-raw emotion of Negative Space, or the unusual characters of Spin Cycle, but Strachan’s maturity and insight shows through the beautifully constructed pages. The tempo stays effortlessly high and the tension keeps building along with Richard’s desire. While Strachan’s first two novels never quite achieved the levels of success they deserved, Ever Fallen In Love might be the one to catapult her into the mainstream.
Ever Fallen In Love
Sandstone Press, rrp £8•99, 350pp