I read A World of Other People ahead of hearing Steven Carroll speak at this year’s Sydney Writers Festival. This book won the Prime Minister’s literary award in controversial circumstances last year, when Tony Abbott overruled the judges choice of Carroll, declaring him joint winner with Richard Flanagan for his Booker winning novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
A World of Other People is set in London during the blitz. The first chapter opens with a man escaping from ‘F for Freddie’, a bomber that has crash landed in a field. But confusingly, the chapter is dated March 1946. The bomber’s pilot will not remember anything more than crawling out of the wreck before it explodes, the only survivor. He awakens to:
‘Smiles all round, but other people’s smiles. Laugher, but other people’s. A world of other people.’
The story switches back to May, 1941, where Iris has just accepted a proposal of marriage from a young man about to leave for the front. But she’s ambivalent about the engagement and wonders what love really is. In addition to her boring civil service job, Iris is also a fire-watcher, checking for fires on the roof of a publisher’s house with T.S Elliot. But on her first night, there’s no raid, just a low flying Wellington bomber, with flames coming from the engine, flying very low over London. Elliot only appears once more but his presence and poem are integral to how the story plays out.
Then another jump forward in time, to September 1942, when Iris meets Jim, a young Australian fighter pilot who has been injured. He is sitting on a park bench, drenched in the misery of post-traumatic stress. ‘Are you all right?’ Iris asks and Jim answers that he is not. So begins a love story and the connection to all other elements of the story.
Carroll used the T.S Elliot poem ‘Little Gidding’, the last of a quartet, as the basis for this story. The first poem, ‘Burnt Norton’ inspired Carroll’s The Lost Life, for which A World of Other People is the sequel. The poetic meaning and symbolism of this story were largely lost on me because I know almost nothing about poetry, but that made not a blind bit of difference.
This is one of the most heartbreaking, beautiful and affecting books I’ve read in a long while. The pace is slow and plot is almost non-existent but the structure is a masterpiece. The way the small elements of scenes are woven together to lead inexorably to the devastating climax shows what a skilled writer Carroll is. Only the most crucial dialogue is included and sometimes the same scene is told over again from a different character’s point of view. The painstakingly slow scenes, where the same ideas tend to loop back on each other, repeating themselves over and over, takes some getting used to but really draw the reader into the interior life of the characters, if you are prepared to stay the distance with them. Carroll said at the Sydney Writers Festival that he was intrigued by the rhythm and circularity of poetry and has tried to incorporate it into his own writing.
This book doesn’t aim to immerse the reader in life during the London blitz or demonstrate the skill and daring of fighter pilots and its slow speed won’t appeal to everyone. But the way this book ends made me cry and its one of the most beautifully written and structured stories I’ve read in a long time.