The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett called to me from the bookshop shelf, with its blue and yellow snapshots of scenes from the story. It promised to be a descendent of One Day and Sliding Doors, a lofty promise, and it met my expectations.
The book follows Eva and Jim, who meet after a dog crosses her path as she cycles to a seminar in Cambridge in 1958. Three versions of her and Jim’s subsequent conversations and indeed their lives follow; one appears good, one bad and one – who knows? But of course life isn’t that simple and their paths follow countless twists and turns.
The story is a beautiful reminder that life is what you make it and that your choices can make a huge difference in what path you go down. Even more, if there is a real connection or purpose to find, it can be found no matter how long it takes.
The bite-sized chunks of each ‘version’ are easy to read and dive into, but you will want to devour it in few sittings, and at least in chunks of three. The only irritating thing is remembering different children’s names and other acquaintances who are slightly different in each version, but the quicker you read the easier it is and the whole theme and unity of the book becomes more apparent as you go on.
Nella arrives in Amsterdam from the countryside to start her new life as the wife of Johannes, a merchant trader, but she is greeted only by his sister Marin who seems brusque and strict. Although Johannes barely shows an interest in 18-year-old Nella, he buys her a cabinet replica of their home for which she sends off to a miniaturist to create some pieces – before she begins receiving unsolicited but scarily accurate miniature creations of her house and its occupants.
There are various mysteries to be unravelled here – who is the miniaturist and why is she sending these items? Why are Johannes and Marin respectively acting odd and aloof? The former, the last to be revealed, is somewhat disappointing but it is the human dramas of the house that prove gripping and carry the book forward.
Nella is an incredibly sophisticated and out-spoken teenager for the seventeenth-century, something which has been criticised in other reviews as unrealistic and something that removes the reader from the story. I would disagree, as it enables Nella to be the mouthpiece we need her to be and her inquisitiveness is the only feasible way for us to get answers.
The writing is thrilling and often extremely graceful and it takes you on a journey that you can barely imagine when you first begin reading.
Both books are truly impressive and enchanting debuts; Barnett and Burton are two authors to watch.