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Book Review: Nothing To See by Pip Adam

To talk about Nothing To See without spoiling the fun is a challenge. Pip Adam’s new novel about sobriety, friendship, and technology follows up from her 2018 Acorn Prize for Fiction winner The New Animals. In this new novel, we follow Peggy and Greta, and for a while Margaret, from 1994 to 2006 to 2018, steeping ourselves in their lives. A plot that sounds almost banal when summarised results in a book impossible to put down.

The incredible cover drew me in to start with: a split face inverted, with bright yellow chunky font running just below their eyes. The joy continues inside the book, too. The novel is loosely divided into thirds, and it draws you in with hypnotic sentences and unsteady narrative. In the first part of the book, we meet Peggy and Greta and follow them from AA meeting to their flat to AA meeting. They make carrot sandwiches. They discover hummus at the dairy. A volunteer job at the Salvation Army shop offers some distraction from their painful desire to drink again and their equally powerful desire never to drink again. They sort clothes for the shop and they eat their lunch in the carpark and discuss their flatmates Heidi and Dell. At home, the phone rings, and no one is there.

I felt like I was holding my breath while I read. The writing’s like a frozen lake: with each step, with each phrase, I wasn’t sure the ice would hold my weight. A sentence declares one idea, and the next sentence contradicts it, leaving the reader to work hard to stay on the surface. It’s funny too. The humour has teeth, and it doesn’t let go.

My favourite scene from this section is a picnic at a local park. From the overladen picnic table to the dramatic volleyball game, it’s cringe after cringe after cringe until your brain cramps from the exertion.

Alcohol abuse and sobriety play an enormous part in this novel, and while the pull of the bottle withers somewhat for the main characters, it never dies away. Early sobriety’s a colossal change in lifestyle. The addict is forced to make a break in their life, a before and an after. They must reject their former self to make space for the new. This division is essential to the person learning to live sober, and it holds tightly to the stopwatch that marks the minutes since they left behind that other self. A few pages in, and, despite Peggy and Greta’s inability to do very much for themselves, they are obsessively keeping sight of the passing time since they stopped drinking, ‘…it was ten months and three weeks and two days.’ But is this division a satisfactory explanation for all the changes in their life? Not at all. The novel twists and turns away from a neat solution.

The second part of the novel sees Peggy and Greta move to another island, another city, one with hills and trains. The writing tightens a bit, the vocabulary extends, and Peggy and Greta move into their thirties. There’s a calm to them, and to the writing, that wasn’t present before, and it’s interesting to consider if perhaps this magnifies the evolving cohesion of Peggy and Greta, a smoothing out of rough edges.

And then comes page 237. Reader, I gasped. There’s no way to tell you what happened without spoiling the shock. The ice broke, just when I thought that it had hardened and solidified to be safe enough to run across.

This novel notices, unpicks, and analyses the limitations and discrimination inherent in bureaucracy and in the systems that govern us. We see a world resistant to change in order to help these women find work, find shelter, and feed themselves. It’s tempting to draw parallels between this and the systemic discrimination of people based on ethnicity and religion, disabilities, and health issues, in particular mental health.

The propellent in the story seemed to be the relationship between Peggy and Greta and Heidi and Dell, their former flatmates and fellow recovering alcoholics. The dynamics of the women kept the suspense factor high, and the novel casts friendship through a prism, watching the deterioration and evolution of connection through many years and in constantly changing environments.

This book melts the boundaries between language and computer code, human behaviour and mysterious text messages on a Tamagotchi phone. It investigates loss and heartbreak and growing up and saying goodbye. And this doesn’t even touch the edges of where this novel goes. It moves from AA meetings to an experiment with the simulation hypothesis of explaining our world. Unafraid to shine a bright light into dark corners, Adam’s novel Nothing To See is compelling literary fiction with a startling yellow spine – you won’t forget it in a hurry.

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