Never Greener review: A tale of sad lives where redemption is hard to find
Ruth Jones’s gripping debut novel centres on two marriages under threat by an old affair
Ruth Jones demonstrates her ability to create strong and identifiable characters that pull you into their lives from the first pages. Photograph: Dave Benett/Getty Images
There’s been a trend popping up recently, at least in my life, of unlikeable characters. No, this isn’t a thinly veiled attempt to shame my colleagues and peers or my nearest and dearest in the national press, but rather a nod to the books and TV programmes I’ve been consuming. Louise O’Neill’s recently released Almost Love struggles to present you with even one character you feel deserves your pity or empathy or forgiveness.
The Judd Apatow Netflix series, Love, recently wrapped up with its third and final season, does the same at the outset. You are forced to question why you should be rooting for any of these less than shiny happy people, and yet you are. Or at the very least in both cases, you’re chomping at the bit to see what happens to them.
And so it goes with Ruth Jones’s debut novel Never Greener. It’s the story of two marriages – one reasonably happy and one less so – and an old affair that resurfaces and constantly threatens to rip them apart. If you’re coming to the book with Jones in your mind as the co-creator and star of the funny and charming TV show Gavan and Stacey, set those expectations aside. Never Greener is not intended to be a funny book. Rather it pulls on Jones’s other strength: writing strong and identifiable characters that pull you into their lives from the first pages.
The aforementioned affair which holds the central plot of the book is introduced quickly. The pace at which this frantic fumble is revealed, and the speed at which the characters are introduced and developed is delicious.
It’s an indiscretion that goes on to span two decades, and ruin multiple lives
Thirty-nine-year-old Scot Callum is married with two kids and another on the way. He loves his wife, he feels lucky, he’s happy with his lot. That’s what we’ve learned by page four. By page five he’s cheating on that wife with 22-year-old barmaid and aspiring actress Kate, just hours after meeting her. It’s an indiscretion that goes on to span two decades, and ruin multiple lives.
Seventeen years after their first meeting, Kate and Callum are reunited and just can’t stay away from each other. This magnetic attraction is teased out brilliantly by Jones. You find it difficult to care about Kate and Callum and the hurt they cause, but you want them to be together in those moments. You want them to scratch those itches.
Leaping forward and backwards on the timeline, we learn more about Kate and Callum’s lives in those intervening 17 years. We’re introduced to the histories of their other halves and friends; the acquiescing Matt, husband to Kate. The unsuspecting and forgiving wife Belinda, at home with Callum’s kids. The bumbling friend Hetty, reminiscent of the tragic and eccentric sister characters in Richard Curtis films. And there’s another character from Kate and Callum’s past, rarely mentioned but always lurking.
Jones dips in and out of these many lives and these many timelines and between London and Edinburgh, but never once loses you, and never once stops you from wondering when redemption will come for Kate and Callum, or will it ever come? Kate gets the hardest time. Her issues with food and alcohol surface again and again. Her mental health struggles are framed through Matt’s concerned eyes. Her obsession with her appearance and her desirability build and build, while her fragility only occasionally pokes through. In contrast, those weaker souls: the acquiescing Matt, the unsuspecting Belinda, the bumbling Hetty, they begin to shine. They give you something to root for.
But Jones teases out that last quarter beautifully and maintains that sense of pace
The climax of the book appears to come too early. With a hundred pages to go you think you’ve reached the crescendo of the drama, and you’re wondering where it can possibly go from here. But Jones teases out that last quarter beautifully and maintains that sense of pace and the compulsion to keep reading right through to the final paragraphs.
Never Greener provides no laughs, so again if it’s Nessa from Gavin and Stacey you’re after, you’ll be disappointed. These are sad and messy lives and what redemption there is hard earned both by the reader and the characters. But those characters are well rounded and believable, their yearning and heartache is palpable, and their flaws are stark. And just like with Apatow’s Love, or O’Neill’s Almost Love, you’re uncertain for much of the book who you should be rooting for, if anyone. But you’ll get there, don’t worry.