‘This Must Be The Place’ by Maggie O’Farrell tells the story of Daniel Sullivan, an American linguistics professor living in a remote farmhouse in Donegal with his reclusive ex-film star wife Claudette, their two children and Claudette’s son from a previous relationship. When Daniel learns that an ex-girlfriend died shortly after they split up in the 1980s, he sets out to discover what happened to her all those years ago, even if it risks destroying his struggling marriage.
Daniel and Claudette’s relationship lies at the heart of the story but rather than a bog-standard dissection of the dynamics of their marriage, O’Farrell explores their characters mostly through the lives of their families and friends. The result is a plot which flits between different characters, continents and decades, often leaving the reader to piece together what might have happened in between events, on a much more audacious scale compared to any of O’Farrell’s previous novels. This might sound quite dense and hard-going but the story is extremely well controlled and easier to follow than I thought it would be. It helps that O’Farrell writes with a wry sense of humour and ensures that the intricate and intimate details of dysfunctional families never get lost in the novel’s wide scope. I particularly enjoyed the chapters written in more experimental formats such as the auction catalogue of some of Claudette’s possessions – a very effective way of documenting her relationship with Timou and an excellent example of how O’Farrell has the ability to “show” rather than “tell” readers what happens to her characters.
Disappearance and loss are recurring themes in O’Farrell’s previous novels, most notably in Instructions for a Heatwave and ‘The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox’. Although the way in which Claudette fakes her own death somewhat stretches the limits of plausibility, her unpredictability and troubled relationship with fame are among the most interesting elements of her character. Daniel’s academic expertise in linguistics offers an equally insightful perspective into his personality even as he often struggles to find the right words to convey his feelings to those around him.
I have read all of Maggie O’Farrell’s novels and her seventh book published earlier this year is now firmly among my favourites along with the Costa Novel Award-winning The Hand That First Held Mine and her affecting debut ‘After You’d Gone’. Whether you are a long-time fan of O’Farrell’s books or you are completely new to her work, I highly recommend ‘This Must Be The Place’.