Trauma has its own corrosive way of stopping life in its tracks.
For many people it is a transitory thing, a period of loss and grieving that immobilises them temporarily but which eventually gives way to some form of healing and tentative then more confident steps forward to something new and different.
But there are others, like Andrew, the protagonist of Richard Roper’s Something to Live For, who find themselves so mired in the trauma of grief that moving forward in any kind of meaningful is all but impossible.
Andrew hasn’t meant to get stuck, he just is and while he suspects there is more waiting for him, he is manifestly unable or unwilling to take steps to get life humming along again.
When we meet him, he’s a 42-year-old man working at a London council department, the sole function of which is to look after people who have died alone in their apartments and ensure they receive a fit and proper burial and a sense of companionable humanity that seemed to evade them in life.
For a man whose life has all but died on the vine, his entire working life is consumed by death – inspecting apartments where people have sometimes lain for up to a year unnoticed and ungrieved, finding out if they have the means to pay for a standard funeral (if not, they receive a stripped back pauper’s version as mandated by British law), if they have any friends or family who can be contacted and arranging a fitting farewell from a world that had clearly left them far behind.
“It was hard for Andrew to believe that it was only five years ago since he’d stood in that windswept street, trying to take in what Cameron had just said. It felt like a lifetime ago.” (P. 27)
It is just a job for many people in Andrew’s line of work but it is personal for him, and he, unlike many of his colleagues, will often attend the funerals he arranges so that there is at least someone there besides the vicar conducting the service.
You assume he does this because the model train loving guy is just a decent guy (and he is, beautifully brought to life by Roper’s gift for rich characterisation) but as Something to Live For continues on its charming but emotive way, it becomes apparent that it is also driven by long ago experienced trauma, the kind that sears you so deeply even you’re not aware how it has affected you or how it manifests.
In many ways Andrew’s life is safely uncomplicated; however, and this is a biggie, he somehow has given the impression to his boss and coworkers that he has wife and kids (2.4 in fact), an inadvertent creation that he has been forced to perpetuate as the lie has taken on a life of its own.
In many ways it is a comfort to ever-lonely Andrew whose only true friends are the three people on the model train sub-forum to which he belongs and which comprises the near totality of his social life, but it is also a weight across his shoulders, a reminder that what he wants most in life remains stubbornly beyond reach.
It appears that Andrew’s life is hopelessly moribund but then the evervescent Peggy joins his department and he finds himself reinventing his life in ways wholly unexpected, desperately needed and long overdue.
Something to Live For is a profoundly moving read because while it employs some fairly standard tropes such as the lost soul protagonist, a cast of quirky characters, a life fossiled in life begging for renewal and an agent of change who might just upend everything for the better, it employs in such a way that the novel never once feels slight or lacking in emotional substance.
It is, in effect a quirky novel with a beating heart at its core, and it is this beguiling combination that delights and uplifts while reminding how terribly dark life can be sometimes.
It might seem like an unworkable combination but Roper pulls it off with aplomb giving us the endless delights of eccentric, quick-witted characters who are never short of a great oneliner and devastatingly good quip but also reaching deep into our hearts and helping us to reminder that here lie hurts without number but also the possibility of redemption and renewal.
But this journey to a new life reborn is not an easy or a straightforward one, and for all its giddily fey moments, Something to Live For has its narrative and thematic eyes set firmly on how broken life can be for so many people.
“In real life. He was going to get fucking sectioned for this. He slumped on to the bed. Out of nowhere, the tune came into his head – Blue moon, you saw me standing alone – and then came the feedback and static, like a wave smashing against rock. He tried to shake it away, getting so desperate for it to end he found himself face down on the bed, pounding the duvet with his fists, shouting into the pillow.” (P. 186)
This might all sound very bleak but it isn’t, thanks to Roper’s gifted hand for being brutally honest about life’s darker moments while holding out hope that things may yet change.
For any of us who have suffered great trauma and found ourselves held firmly and immovably in place, Something to Live For, is a salve for the soul because while it acknowledges that our grief is real, that people often lose their way and that not everyone finds their way back to life, people or the things that once meant something to them, it doesn’t ever say that this is the end of the road.
Thus while Andrew is confronted daily with death’s presence and life’s abeyance, and has found himself unable to do much but be a bystander struck numb, he is awakened over the course of this richly-realised and gloriously delightful novel to the possibility that there may yet be more for him.
Quite a bit more in fact.
Something to Live For reassures us that us that while our trauma and grief is real and we are wholly entitled to mourn the loss of what they took away that coming from that dark and lonely place is possible and that we may yet find life coming alive in ways that bring us joy, energise us and send us hurtling forwards even if taking those steps comes with pain and uncertainty.
This wholly wonderful novel is a thing of honesty and reassurance, humour and heartbreak, disappointment and hope, and it will rip your heart out before placing it tenderly back in, holding you close and bringing back to you in the most wondrous of ways.