Time isn't linear; nor is memory," Jules, the central protagonist of Benedict Wells' novel The End of Loneliness tells his best friend Alva. "You always remember more clearly things you're emotionally close to at any given moment." The memories of a Christmas are always their freshest at next year's celebration, for example. He continues: "Memories of things that are emotionally similar to the present take a kind of shortcut."
This notion lies at the heart of Wells’ story, which is a compressed account of the lives of three siblings – the youngest, Jules, and his older brother and sister, Marty and Liz.
The narrative reads like a concertina, with one emotionally resonant moment squeezed up against another, culminating in a sort of meditation on the presence of the “invisible forces and currents that could change everything at a stroke”. All the while, Jules finds himself grappling with the question of why “there were families that were spared by Fate and others that attracted misfortune”.
For the most part, the story unspools chronologically, beginning during the siblings' childhood in the 1980s. They live in Munich, with their parents, although the story opens on a summer holiday in France. Shortly thereafter, the parents are killed in a road accident, and the orphaned siblings are packed off to a rather grim state boarding school. Jules is the story's central consciousness. He's the character whose life we follow the closest, over whose shoulder and into whose mind we peer. A once gregarious child, after his parents' death he retreats into himself, wobbling on suddenly uneven ground. No longer the class clown, instead he's the boy who muddles his words, a loner whose only friend, a classmate called Alva, is drawn to his dark side because she's dealing with her own family tragedy. Two people united by their knowledge of what's it's like "when life has been poisoned by something, right from the start. Like black liquid poured into a basin of clean water."
It’s not only Jules whose life is irrevocably changed during these unhappy boarding school years: “I kept the memories of my parents securely bound and sealed, leaving them to gather dust in the corner of my consciousness.” Marty is quiet and geeky, “immersed in [his] schoolbooks and computer games”, thereafter throwing himself into academic study, part of his search for stability and regularity. Liz, meanwhile, goes down the opposite route. She runs wild, turning to drink, drugs and partying. “And the more time went by, the more impossible it was for me to get back to you,” she explains when they’re all older. It’s a tough time, and the siblings drift apart: “And now here we were, sitting at the table like three actors meeting again after a long time who can no longer remember the script of their most famous play.”
At this point, the novel takes an unexpected turn. What we think is a story about three siblings shifts its focus to Jules' friendship with Alva. It's not jarring exactly, Wells – his prose pleasingly translated from German by Charlotte Collins – is too elegant a storyteller to lose control, but the shift is noticeable, and a little disorientating.
In some ways, this middle section reads like chapters lifted from a different novel entirely. Having lost touch with Alva towards the end of their adolescence, she and Jules reconnect when they're in their 30s, Alva inviting Jules to spend time as her and her husband's guest in their chalet in Switzerland. It's a slightly strange interlude, ultimately revealed to be integral to the plot, but at the same time self-contained and set apart from the broader action.
Some might describe Wells' writing as earnest, and it is. This is a novel that takes itself seriously, so unashamedly so, in fact, the reader really has no option but to acquiesce to its demands. "From then on I met my fate with indifference," Jules soliloquises at one low point, "and what followed was a meaningless period, disposable as crumpled paper".
Or, take this description of Liz and Marty trying to find a way to reconnect after estrangement. "They both stared at the floor and were silent. The scene was like a chess game with two opposing pieces left that can't attack each other, like two bishops on different colours."
Neither is Wells afraid to tug at the reader's heartstrings in a way that verges on the melodramatic – in less capable hands it surely would be derided as such. Despite the easy flow of Collins' translation, it's impossible to forget you're not reading this novel in its first language. It has a distinctly European flair. Whether it will do so well outside of Europe – so far 200,000 copies have been sold in Germany alone, and the book spent 30 weeks in the Spiegel Top Ten list, as well as being awarded the European Union Prize for Literature – only time will tell, but it's being sold worldwide.
“A difficult childhood is like an invisible enemy,” Jules thinks at one point in the story. “You never know when it will strike.” Plenty of novels have explored this territory before, but despite the familiarity of the terrain, admirably Wells both manages to make this story his own, and to ensure it comes across as fresh and urgent.