Seeing Other People is the thirteenth book from the mind of Mike Gayle, and it’s a little bit of a paradox. Like all but one of the previous 12 in the Gayle back-catalogue, this is a work of fiction, set in a specific period of a man’s life as he negotiates the nuances and red flags of a pivotal event. Unlike the previous 12, this has a supernatural element on which much of the drama hinges. But more on that later.
Gayle’s debut, My Legendary Girlfriend (1998), has sold in excess of 250,000 copies and set the trend of his best-selling status. His story of a dumped twenty-something searching for the right relationship entered Gayle into the publishing sea change of the 1990s, which began with the traditional spy and war novels by the likes of Tom Clancy and Wilbur Smith . Then with the success of Helen Fielding and Jane Green’s revitalisation of the ‘Chick Lit’ genre, the decade ended with Nick Hornby reigning supreme and dragging men into the wine-fuelled yuppie dissections of urban life and relationships. Even Danielle Steele turned briefly from her usual heroine when she published Daddy (1991) about a newly divorced father of 3 whose wife of 18 years leaves him to figure out how to raise his family.
Roddy Doyle, Irvine Welsh and Christopher Brookmyre all joined the party, bringing their inimitable styles. Hornby liked lists and male obsessions, Doyle was a unique Irish voice, Welsh wrote the underbelly of Scottish urbanism and Brookmyre the dark, dark humour of Scottish crime thrillers. Gayle set out to explain the average bloke and his ineptitude in relationships and growing up and he has done it well, even writing two cornerstone books Turning Thirty (2000) and Turning Forty (2013). He has dealt with friendship, working (a career, for some), courtship, the consequences of courtship – a relationship, a break up, fear of marriage, marriage, family and getting older.
Now 2014 sees the publication of Seeing Other People. Joe Clarke is a forty-something journalist and husband to Penny, father to Rosie and Jack… He thinks he’s just slept with a twenty-something intern from his workplace. He thinks so because he has awoken naked in bed next to her, but he can’t remember the wooing or the deed, and he can’t find a wound from the last thing he does remember – an assault! So, Joe’s story begins on an intriguing note, albeit with some major credibility questions handing in the air, which you assume is what the other 300 or so pages are for. And you’d be right.
Gayle brings us up to speed with what’s happened so far and then traces what happens next. He then does what he does best. Seeing Other People is full of sometimes painfully acute observations, brilliantly written. He writes with wit and irony and he does have a knack for conveying the poignant. Joe’s journey feels genuinely tortured; the friends he makes, for all their faults, are attractive characters that you wouldn’t mind having a drink with and whose actions feel real. The kids and the philosophies of how to deal with them in difficult times are strangely satisfying – the younger Jack, in particular, is a delight. Keep your eye out for the names he thinks he will choose for his own children one day. Priceless!
My problem was with the two main female characters – wife Penny and ex-girlfriend Fiona. Joe’s reasons for loving his wife are nicely drawn out as the story progresses. As a woman, I appreciate them! But I’m not sure that the character herself ever really lives up to them. Fiona, whose real or imagined role is literally as a spirit guide, was a nightmarish ex-girlfriend. The Joe who was with her and the one we think we know now seem wholly disconnected and the change isn’t too clear. If the assumption is that the relationship with his wife-to-be which followed is the cause, well, again, it’s neither obvious nor subtly presented. Whilst I love a supernatural/sci-fi element to any novel or movie, the wielder has to be sure not to leave any gaping holes in credibility, and I’m not sure Gayle wholly succeeds with it.
Still, Seeing Other People’s place in Mike Gayle’s record of a fictional life is assured, as he handles many aspects with a sure hand. He will make you stop and ponder the workings of a youngish middle-aged man’s mind, as well as laugh out loud. These skills are not to be sniffed at, as they have developed from his Sociology degree (Salford University) and past jobs as Bliss Magazine’s Agony Uncle, Just Seventeen magazine’s features editor and freelance journalist for the Top of the Pops magazine, FHM, The Guardian, The Times and Cosmopolitan. More importantly, and perhaps more telling, Mr. Gayle is the rather serious domestic owner of two sheds!
Seeing Other People is a hilarious and bittersweet novel about love, parenthood and fidelity, and how easy it is to get lost on the way to your own happy ending.