Gifts: A warm Christmas read with some light and shade

Book review: Laura Barnett captures vulnerability of the holidays

English author and journalist Laura Barnett’s debut novel, The Versions of Us, was a number one bestseller that established her talent for illuminating the beauty in mundanity. Photograph:  Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images

English author and journalist Laura Barnett’s debut novel, The Versions of Us, was a number one bestseller that established her talent for illuminating the beauty in mundanity. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images

Carrie Fisher once said, “I don’t think Christmas is necessarily about things. It’s about being good to one another.” This is the spirit in which Laura Barnett has written Gifts – a novel that consists of 12 loosely connected stories, introducing 12 individuals, who are searching for the perfect Christmas gift for someone they love. In the run up to Christmas 2021, much soul-searching is being done about what is important in a (hopefully) post-lockdown festive season – how can we express what we mean to each other with something that can be wrapped and placed under a tree? There is a renewed appreciation for the power of community that infuses this set of stories with the sort of solace many readers will respond very positively to.

Barnett’s debut novel, The Versions of Us (2015), was a number one bestseller that established her talent for illuminating the beauty in mundanity, for elevating the ordinariness of life to something celebratory. Turning her attention to the fraught emotional landscape of Christmas offers much scope for her to deploy this talent to great effect. Barnett’s powers of observation result in many poignant moments throughout this collection as she turns her spotlight on the tiny human details that unlock a character’s whole world – an elderly lady in a hospital bed trying to apply her lipstick without a mirror, a rescue pet returned, a pair of carved wooden dogs wrapped in tissue paper inside a plastic bag, a carer touching the scars on her patient’s back. In fact, these moments offer such powerful insights into the characters, that much of what is said as a prelude to them, or in their wake, feels extraneous. The instinct to explain undermines these moments that would stand more powerfully on their own.

The Irish Times
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